No matter how humans may struggle to separate ourselves from the natural world, we are inevitably subject to its rule. The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, is a case study in how a changing climate can crush imperial ambitions. Recent research conducted at the Swiss Federal Research Institute used the study of tree rings to determine regional climate changes that fundamentally altered the balance of power 1,500 years ago.

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Byzantine Empire, food prices, empire, imperialism, climate change

The width of tree rings is a reliable indicator of summer temperatures, the period of most tree growth, at any point in time. The team at the Swiss Federal Research Institute analyzed data sets of tree ring width from two regions: the Alps and the Altai Mountains at the intersection of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Using this data, the team determined that a late Antique Little Ice Age began around 535 AD. This cool period was exacerbated by volcanic eruptions, which induced significant temperature drops in 536, 540 and 547 AD. Volcanic activity can induce climate cooling through its release of small particles, sulfate aerosols, into the atmosphere. Lead researcher Ulf Büntgen describes this period as “the most dramatic cooling in the northern hemisphere in the past 2000 years.”

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Such drastic climate change affected food supplies and contributed to a major famine in the Empire, which simultaneously suffered under the Justinian plague pandemic. Starting in 541 AD, the Justinian plague ravaged the Byzantine population of the Mediterranean, killing millions over several centuries. However, climate cooling was a boon to the agricultural production of the Arabian Peninsula. It is speculated that this shift of precipitation power may have contributed to the rise of the Arab Empire, which in various forms would dominate the region for centuries. Büntgen warns against drawing too many hard conclusions from the results. “We must remain cautious about environmental cause and political effect, but it is striking how closely this climate change aligns with major upheavals across several regions.”

Via The Daily Mail

Images via Past Global Changes International Project Office/DailyMail and Wikimedia