Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750-950

Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750-950

By Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and Paul A. Mayewski

Speculum, Vol. 82 (2007)

 The Island of Stromboli, Shot 2004 Sep 28 by Steven W. Dengler.

Introduction: Revolutionary advances of the natural sciences will transform our understanding of the human past. This case study supports that thesis by connecting new data arising from the last decade’s scientific work in palaeoclimatology with the history of the Carolingian empire. For medievalists, it may open the door to a potent new set of insights into the total past of European civilization. For climate scientists, this study clarifies an opportunity to observe the impact on human society of scientifically established proxy measures of climatic anomalies and shows that the human evidence for the first millennium of our era is much richer than scientists generally assume.

Food production was the foundation of the medieval economy, the generation and distribution of wealth. In the early-medieval world of limited storage and interregional transport, severe climatic anomalies, among other factors, could disrupt food production and supply. Particularly if they caused famines, such disruptions have long attracted historians concerned with demography (mortality), politics (rebellions), and, most recently, culture or mentality. Direct correlation between severe climatic anomalies and historical events is often obvious, even if the details prove to be complex. For instance, in the reign of Pippin III, the severe winter of 763–64 provoked famine, and that surely explains the suspension of the major effort by the king to conquer Aquitaine the following summer. This paper explores palaeoclimate data recovered from the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2) in relation to written evidence for exceptionally severe climate anomalies in Europe from the eighth to the tenth centuries.

Climate scientists and historians have explored intensively the second millennium of our era. Important observations that have emerged include the late-medieval episode of Rapid Climate Change (hereafter RCC) commonly known as the “Little Ice Age” and, of course, accumulating insights into the present period of apparently accelerating climate change. By contrast, the first millennium has attracted scant attention, despite the fact that the scientific evidence is basically the same as for the later period. Moreover, from a climatological point of view, in many ways the climate then may have been more closely comparable to the twentieth century than the intervening period. In the view of some scientists, the first millennium was relatively quiet, lacking anomalies even close to the Little Ice Age; both with respect to average hemispheric temperatures and atmospheric circulation data, it seems to offer an excellent, if slightly cooler, potential analogue for current conditions. If this is correct, the first millennium urgently deserves more intensive scientific scrutiny. The written record is less rich than for the second millennium, but it is by no means negligible. Indeed, in Europe and the Mediterranean, the first and last several centuries of the first millennium are fairly richly recorded; moreover, archaeology is supplying a swiftly growing quantity of new data across the entire first millennium, some of which have implications for climate studies.

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