Simanaitis Says

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SOME MIGHT SAY that 2018 has to be the worst year ever. No, bunkie, I’m here to tell you there was a year that topped 2018 by a long shot. What’s more, in Parts 1 and 2, today and tomorrow, I offer details recently reported in Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In Science, November 15, 2018, Ann Gibbons explains “Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive.’ ”

Admittedly, there’s competition for this dubious honor: Consider 1349 when Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Or 1918 when influenza killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide. Or 2016 when less than a majority of Americans elected Donald J. Trump.

No, the year 536 was still worse.


It makes for a fascinating detective tale about medieval history and geology, an appreciation for climate scientists, and an Icelandic setting.

More Recent Icelandic Happenings. You may recall Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 that caused a shutdown of European air travel and other havoc.

A composite map of Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud, timeframe: April 14–25, 2010.

Eyjafjallajökull, pronounced ei:ja fjatla jœ:kytl, has an interesting Icelandic etymology: It’s literally “island mountain icecap.” The “icecap” part, jœ:kytl, has an English relative in the word “icicle.”

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Image from AP.

By the way, Iceland had another volcanic scare in September of this year with Katla, Icelandic for “kettle” or “boiler.” In some news reports, its potential eruption was deemed “highly hazardous,” though scientists concluded that warnings were “highly exaggerated.”

The Year 536: More Than “Highly Hazardous.” As noted by Gibbons, “A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. ‘For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,’ wrote Byzantine historian Procopius…. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record ‘a failure of bread from the years 536–539.’ ”

Procopius of Caesarea, c. 500–c. 554, considered the last major historian of the ancient Western world. Not to be confused with Saint Procopius of Scythipolis (I almost did). St. Procopius is said to have slewed 6000 barbarian invaders by showing them the cross. On July 7, 303 A.D., he was martyred anyway. Cf. karma?

I seem to have strayed off target from the year 536. Fortunately, one hopes, there’s always tomorrow and Part 2. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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