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What is the plague?

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen explains the history of the plague and the reason it's still around today.

Posted: Nov 21, 2018 8:44 PM
Updated: Nov 21, 2018 9:01 PM

It's easy to look back on the past through rose-tinted glasses, as the saying goes, but new research suggests that the mid-sixth century was definitely a time to forget.

A team of historians and scientists has identified A.D. 536 as the beginning of a terrible sequence of events for humankind.

A massive volcanic eruption spewed a huge cloud of ash that shrouded the Northern Hemisphere in darkness and caused a drop in temperatures that led to crop failure and starvation, said co-lead study author Professor Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham in the UK.

Then the misery was compounded in A.D. 542 as cold and hungry populations in the eastern Roman Empire were struck by the bubonic plague.

Now, in collaboration with glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine in Orono, Loveluck's team has identified the source of the cloud.

By analyzing ice samples from the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps, the researchers were able to identify atmospheric pollutants deposited over the past 2,000 years, according to the study, published last week in the journal Antiquity.

Substances found in the ice provide evidence that the eruption took place in Iceland, not California, as suggested by previous research.

The eruption and the 542 plague outbreak caused economic stagnation in Europe, which lasted more than 30 years until 575, when there were early signs of recovery, Loveluck said.

This recovery is evidenced by a spike in airborne lead particles that show up in ice samples.

Lead ore was used to smelt silver, and its presence provides evidence that the precious metal was once again in demand for making new coins as the European economy started to grow quickly in 640, according to Loveluck.

"There is evidence of total economic transformation between 640 and 660," Loveluck said.

We might think that we have a lot to complain about in 2018, but at least we're not fighting off the plague as we shiver under a cloud of volcanic ash that blocks out the sun.

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