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AD 536

The Worst Year Ever and Our New Ragnarok


Matthew L. Simon

Northeast Iowa Community College
Nathan A. Quarderer
Earth Lab
Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES)


Anthropogenic climate change and the predicted impacts on human and natural systems have been called everything from a “catastrophe” to a “hoax.”  This case study explores a historical incident of short-term climate change and how it impacted human culture.  In AD 536, a volcanic event covered much of the Northern Hemisphere in a cloud of ash that reduced solar inputs and reduced average regional temperatures by three to four degrees Celsius. This short-term reduction of temperature forced major changes in how ancient Nordic culture was structured in only a few years.  The case provides an opportunity for graphical analysis of current and projected temperature changes due to modern anthropogenic climate change as well as an exploration of societal and environmental impacts that are currently occurring.  Students will hopefully make the connection that if ancient humans and their societies were impacted by climate change, we might possibly experience something similar. This case was developed for an introductory college-level, non-majors environmental science course, but it could easily be incorporated into ecology units in biology, geoscience, and social science courses that examine human systems.


  • Consider evidence that we are in a period of rapidly warming climate, likely with anthropogenic causation.
  • Understand that humans can be severely impacted by short-term climatic events.
  • Understand that the functioning of global ecosystems relies on climate.
  • Develop graphical literacy skills.
  • Understand that human and natural systems are linked.
  • Understand how climate change alters specific ecosystem types.
  • Understand how climate change may impact human systems (e.g., agriculture, infrastructure, etc.).


Climate change; dust veil; volcano; eruption; anthropogenic; social impacts; environmental impacts; natural disaster; Ragnarok; Viking; global warming; temperature change; catastrophe; societal upheaval; myth; human systems

Topical Areas


Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Analysis (Issues), Discussion



Subject Headings

Anthropology  |   Climatology / Meteorology  |   Earth Science  |   Environmental Science  |   Geography  |   Geology  |   Interdisciplinary Sciences  |   Paleontology  |   Science (General)  |  

Date Posted


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