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If You Think 2020 Is the Worst Year on Record, Wait Till You Hear About 536 AD

Ever heard of the Dark Ages?
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At the close of every year, we often see people posting the same things on social media: “worst year ever,” “glad this year is over,” and “good riddance!” For some reason, many of us are fixated on blaming a fixed period of time for all the bad or unlucky things that happen within said period.

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2020 is no exception. In fact, with all the crazy things that have happened over the last seven months, this year might actually qualify to be the worst ever on record. I mean, come on—massive wildfires in the US and Australia, a Ukrainian jetliner crash in Iran, unexpected celebrity deaths like Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman, Taal volcano’s eruption, a locust infestation of biblical proportions in East Africa, an explosion in Beirut, earthquakes in Turkey and flooding in China, and so much more. And, oh, this little thing called the coronavirus, which we’re still trying to get rid of.

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So is it a consensus? 2020—worst year ever?

Not so fast. We might all collectively decide on the sheer horribleness of this year by virtue of the fact that we’re all living through it, but you’d be surprised to know that men of science have crunched the numbers, parsed through millennia, and have come up with a definitive winner for the title of worst year ever.

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And that year is 536 AD.

That’s a pretty bold claim, and oddly specific. So what exactly happened that year?

Worst year ever 

“It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," says Michael McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, in Sciencemag.org

According to McCormick, at the beginning of the year, a fog that was likely caused by a volcanic eruption blanketed Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia, darkening the skies for 18 months and lowering temperatures to record levels.

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“For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year," Byzantine historian Procopius reportedly wrote. Temperatures fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C that summer, which Sciencemag says initiated the coldest decade in the past 2300 years.

“Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved,” McCormick says. “The Irish chronicles record a failure of bread from the years 536–539. “Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse.” 

The article goes on to quote scientists who theorize that it was probaby a volcanic eruption in Iceland early in 536 that caused the ash cloud and consequently messed up weather patterns globally.

It’s possible it was in 536 when the period we now refer to as the “Dark Ages” began.

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And McCormick says the world didn’t recover from that devastation until the year 640—which, if, you know your math, means, people lived (and died) in misery for over 100 years.

So. Bet 2020 doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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