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A new study found that three pandemics in the Roman Empire aligned with periods of abnormally cold and dry weather, indicating a potential link between climate change and Rome’s decline, New Scientist reported.
Researcher Kyle Harper and his team analyzed sediment core data from the Adriatic Sea to reconstruct the climate of southern Italy from 200 BCE to 600 CE.
They explained that the Roman Empire thrived during a “Roman climate optimum” of warm and wet weather until around 130 CE, when temperatures dropped and droughts became more frequent.
The Antonine Plague in 165-180 CE and the Plague of Cyprian in 251-266 CE were marked with especially cold periods, contributing to the empire’s instability. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, a cold period marked by the Plague of Justinian in the 540s affected the Eastern Roman Empire.
While signs of cold spells were previously recorded in tree rings in the northern Alps, the recent analysis of the sediment core showed a decline in warm-water plankton species and species dependent on river-deposited nutrients – indicating aridity.
The researchers added that these cold and dry spells further disrupted harvests, weakened immune systems, and facilitated disease spread through migration and conflict.
While this research sheds light on climate patterns in Roman Italy, other researchers cautioned against attributing Rome’s downfall solely to climate change and pandemics, highlighting the complexity of historical events.
Even so, Harper emphasized that the study helps us understand the impact of climate change in antiquity and the significant strain that even slight temperature changes can impose on human civilizations.
“It gives your perspective to understand that two to three degrees (Celsius, or 3.6-5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of change is absolutely enormous and puts tremendous strain on human societies,” he said.