Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Extreme weather events of 535–536 (wikipedia.org)
99 points by diodorus on March 27, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 86 comments

536 was considered the worst year ever, to be alive.

Kinda puts 2020 into perspective.


Counterpoint: https://www.amazon.com/1177-B-C-Civilization-Collapsed-Turni...

> Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he's got an answer:

This seems likely to be biased by asking a "medieval historian". Are we surprised that his answer came from the period he studies?

there were also the 4.2 kiloyear event (2200BC) that caused the collase of the old kingom and akkadian empire. [1] the bronze age collapse around 1200BC is now also partly explained by a climate event, that drove the sea people into warmer regions [2]; the black death in the middle ages may also have something to do with climate [3]; It looks as if every millenium there is a climate event that is causing some big changes.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4.2-kiloyear_event [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Bronze_Age_collapse#Envir... [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_of_the_Late_Middle_Ages...

536 may have been the worst year in history, but it wasn't the worst of all time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_bottleneck#Humans

Who knows how 2021 will be. We should also prepare for a 536 type event. With 8 billion people to feed I wonder the effect it would have nowadays.

Maybe the Younger Dryas would have been close to as bad...

Now I'm wondering (and worried) about the possibility of intentionally triggering volcanic eruptions to cool down a heating planet.

Not a good idea as the emanated Sulphur dioxide is a terrible greenhouse gas.

Indeed, but the smoke reduces heat penetration (otherwise the aforementioned ice ages wouldn't have occurred).

See also "nuclear winter".

I've been thinking about mass famine in modern times.

When covid came we suddenly had a mask problem. We were focused on getting them to the medical professionals. And then in what I consider to be one of humanity's most impressive abilities, we adapted, cranked up production, and solved that problem.

Can we do the same with food?

Say we have some extreme of extremes weather or disease events that wipe out food supplies everywhere. How fast could we muster some solution that doesn't involve waiting a growing season?

The most common historical solution has been backyard and community gardens. They were common after the soviet collapse, and during WWII in North America.

I know you said “and not wait a growing season” but some backyard crops can grow in 21-30 days. And masks took longer than that. There’s a lot of yardspace that could become gardens and chicken farms in a pinch.

A big risk would be if that happened during the winter, or in a place where there is less surplus fertile land.

If there’s some event where you can’t grow, the only current thing we can do is already having non perishables stockpiled. We didn’t event a whole new supply chain for masks: existing companies ramped up production and citizens/new companies made cloth masks. But we’re talking established techniques.

Gardens are good for herbs, vegetables, and possibly a small quantity of staple crops.

When you're trying to provide calories (as well as sufficient essential nutrients: protein, essential fats, and vitamins), quantity matters, and a few raised beds really won't get you very far.

An adult needs roughly 2,000 food calories (kilocalories) per day (~1,600 -- 2,400 for women, 2,000 -- 3,000 for men), though it's possible to survive (with weight loss) on less than that.

1 kg of wheat flour contains 3,600 calories, or nearly the daily calorie intake of two adults.

An acre of wheat in the US yields about 40--50 bushels (under modern mechanised agriculture), at about 27 kg/bushel. Which, if I'm doing my maths right might mean an acre can support about 4.8 people (in wheat).

Under emergency and hand-raised conditions, probably markedly less.

Mind: if you've got some but insufficient food, you could supplement with what you grow in a garden plot.

The traditional famine food on Earth (since Europeans discovered the Americas), or Mars (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJCMgwcJNOk) has been the potato, at about 10 tons per acre. That's about 10x the wheat yield, though potatoes have a much higher water content, and rate at about 870 calories/kg, about 25% as much as wheat.

Yeah I was thinking potatoes and chicken as the ultimate staples of such gardens. Chickens can grow in 8-12 weeks, or 6 months for egg laying chickens. I guess it would depend how well chickens survived any initial catastrophe.

Maybe greens wouldn’t be worth it compared to potatoes even if they grow quicker.

Right. Chickens would address fresh protein (through both layers and fryers), though they require feed.

This is true, but we have to keep in mind that victory gardens were supplements, not replacements. Also, if we had another 536 event, even the gardens would suffer.

We planted a garden for the first time in years right at the start of lockdown, and it was not nearly enough for food replacement. I laughed that it was good thing we didn’t need it for survive, because we’d starve.

Still, gardens are a great hobby and way to offset food costs and be a bit more self sufficient.

I think we'd need to be able to spin up grow lights and materials for DIY greenhouses (pipe and plastic, at least) in large volumes. Otherwise, yeah, pointless trying to grow at home when the sun is obscured.

I find that the garden is a good way to complement things you're already making. Start with a staple (cheap and long shelf life) and add garden things to make it more interesting. I don't have chickens, but getting 10 eggs daily wouldn't hurt in terms of making frittata and so on. You need a lot of time and space to otherwise live off just a vegetable garden. I have a dozen chilli plants and single-handedly (wife and kids don't like chilli) eat myself out of stock just using small chillis in rice or similar.

Soviet collapse era gardening/small-scale farming really helped, yes, and it also was a pretty horrific experience. Thank god for the damn potatoes, otherwise I might not be typing this. That said, the weather patterns were quite favorable and the many novice farmers would have stood little chance if the climate turned on us during those hungry years. Russian summer offers no second harvest, so a failed crop means a hungry winter. With no stores of food because of the economic failures, a winter like described above would have meant widespread famine.

Yes, as a Canadian the timing really gives me pause. Food catastrophe in the wrong month would spell true disaster.

Did people raise backyard chickens back then too? I lived in Cuba a while and I know it was common there as a supplementary source of food.

Getting enough calories to survive from a backyard garden is very tricky. I dabble in it and probably get like <500 calories per year. To survive you’d need staples like wheat but that takes almost a year and even potatoes take 3 months ish. Peas are fast when it’s sunny I guess. If the season or weather kills commercial farms then your garden will likely do much worse than the pros

It's not tricky if you know what you're doing. There are people who scale-up their backyards to professional microfarming. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-BlDCX__nCLs_ZF9meYQbw

The solutions to failures of open land farming isn't microfarming, it's scaling-up greenhouses or vertical warehouse aeroponics.

> There’s a lot of yardspace that could become gardens and chicken farms in a pinch.

I’d do anything to stop caring for the damned lawn.

Bad news: Gardens and chicken farms require more work than a lawn, not less.

Yes, but those things bring more value than simple green grass. I can eat the chickens and their eggs. I can eat veggies from the garden. I can’t eat St Augustine grass because I’m not a goat.

You can also feed the chicken almost all non eaten veggies and egg shells.

So why not stop? Keeping up with the Jones’ or Sisyphusian self imposed torture?

HOA requirements.

It's interesting to me that the one country that markets itself as "land of the free" is the only one with homeowner associations

Not entirely wrong, but Canada for example has condo(minium) boards where a development wasn't done as a freehold.

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condominium

Though a "condo" is technically a legal structure, in Canada in generally refers to a self-owned 'apartment' with-in a tower of some height. Colloquially 'townhouses' are house-looking structures in a common development.

Fully- or semi-detached generally means a freehold property without any links to any kind of other legal entity (besides the municipality). 'Semi' means that there is a shared wall between two structures, but they are legally independent lots.

I would never!

If I simply stop, I won’t be able to find my house. There has to be a better plan. Native plants are probably the answer.

For a low naintenance lawn you can plant clover or turf grass or a mix of grass with clover, Dutch Clover and chamomile. You get a more diverse lawn which attracts bees. If you have a lot of shade, moss is also a good alternative.


> we adapted

Yes, by hogging toilet paper. I hate to be a pessimist, but just look at the track record: when covid started, there were shortages of many things (e.g. for a few weeks in march, canned food and chicken ran out of stock at places). We've also seen the impact manifest in the form of price increases (basmati rice[0], for example)

If we ever see large scale crop failures due to a weather event, it's quite reasonable to expect lockdown of exports of foodstuff, and it's quite reasonable to expect large spikes in consumer spending quickly depleting with the supply chain pipeline like what happened with toilet paper/canned food.

The problem is you can't armchair-engineer sunlight at the scale that humanity's agricultural industry requires, so a large scale volcanic or meteoric event would likely be catastrophic and a lot of people would die.

[0] https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/sourcing/basmati-rice-shortages-...

For what it’s worth the worst toilet paper shortages were because home use increased dramatically and business use distribution wasn’t readily adaptable to that kind of market or distribution.

It's hard to believe that the behavior we saw can be reasonably explained by demand.

For people who spent greater than 1/3 of their day at the office, which would be 1/2 of their waking day, it seems reasonable that many would be defecating there as well.

Plus it’s a great way to kill time between meetings.

Well, it is. It’s a well know social phenomenon. It even has a name. It’s called a run.

Even at the time, stores and suppliers were saying nothing was wrong with any part of the supply chain. If you think there was some vast conspiracy to cover up the toilet paper shortage of 2020, not only do you have to explain where all the toilet paper went, and why the paper mills had a sudden drop in production, but you’re also going to have to explain shortages of flour, sugar, noodles, and most bizarrely of all, bottled water. Bottle water shortages, at a time when there was nothing wrong with municipal water supplies!

This isn’t even the first time in my life I’ve seen a run that was caused by panic buying. I think back to the afternoon of September 11, 2001.[0] There were gas runs. Gas stations literally ran out of gas. Prices were gouged.[1] Lines formed like the 1970s oil crisis.

The next day everything was back to normal. Why? Because there was nothing wrong with the oil supply. The only shortage was at the retail stations. As soon as the tanker trucks returned, it stations reopened.

[0] https://tulsaworld.com/archive/9-11-attack-fueled-panic-at-t...

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/12/gas.prices/index.html

I think they mean to separate out 'demand for use' from 'I want it'.

I bought an extra package of toilet paper. I think I had made a normal purchase of a large package in mid February and then when the shelves looked pretty bare in early March I bought another large package even though I hadn't opened the previous one.

So I had months of toilet paper sitting in storage. It was still an amount that I knew I would use up in a pretty moderate timeframe, and not taking up a lot of space, so whatever, but I certainly participated in the run.

I filled up my tank on 9/11, even though I knew there was no reason to. It's one of the memories that has stuck with me for going on 20 years.

As opposed to the runs, of course, which would also drive up toilet paper stockpiling.

The toilet paper crisis of 1973 was caused by a joke.


The toilet paper crisis of 2020 was caused by panic buying to feel safe in uncertain times, and a slight bump in real use, 40%.


Shortages can easily occur based solely on the perception that a shortage is likely: https://www.nist.gov/blogs/blogrige/johnny-carson-blame-1973...

> Yes, by hogging toilet paper

Wasn’t that largely due to hype in the media?

I might be wrong, but I was under the impression that toilet paper isn’t really profitable to trade over longer distances, due to the volume a toilet roll takes up.. (There are probably different economic circumstances in other parts of the world than what I’m most familiar with)

Nuclear power and warehouse aeroponics.

That is precisely what the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED) is researching https://allfed.info/papers/

A human pandemic, even a quite mild one, has proved traumatic.

It's not a bad human infection, but one targeting a staple crop (wheat, maize, or rice) that would truly concern me. That was Ireland's experience in the mid-19th century, and its population still hasn't recovered to pre-famine levels, a century and a half later.

I'd wager that the parts of the earth that are chronically in need of food were also not supplied with masks.

We will have to to see mass deaths before we mobilize.

Don’t forget that it took hospital corridors to turn into morgue and mass graves dug in NY to accept that this is not just the flu. Even that didn’t convince everyone that it’s serious.

A famine will probably be even worse than the covid-19. Maybe the denial won’t be that widespread but you can expect an intense blaming among people with different lifestyles. Everyone will have different degree of understanding the seriousness of the situation and everyone will be willing to cut back on consumption in different degrees.

Even without famine people can have strong opinions, some people even hate on people who actually advocate eating less. There’s strong hate towards vegetarians and vegans from the some groups of right wing people. I’ve been reading a lot of messages from non-US citizens being very happy that Trump will stick it to vegetarians. Meat consumption is also a topic among the followers of Jordan Peterson.

> and mass graves dug in NY

This was misreported [0] to stoke fear among people who don't know about Hart Island [1].

[0] https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/0...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hart_Island_(Bronx)#Cemetery

It looks like it helped. That, together with the refrigerated trucks.

I think a lot of country have grain reserves for this purpose ? I hope they do :)

There are some weird high tech last resort solutions today that we have never had, like petroleum based food.

“You can live on it, but it tastes like shit.” - Crocodile Dundee

Probably awful for you too but less awful than starvation.

if you look at things like Leningrad siege during WW2, or the mass famine caused from communism, things don't look good...

1. People will resort up to canibalism to survive, and cheat/steal/fight to get some food (ww2 concentration camps)

2. Humanity will have hard time to adapt, and by the time it does, millions will be already dead. (see the mass starvation caused in slow motion in Ukraine by Stalin, and in China by the great leap, and in many african countries)

Your point is fair, but a big difference is that those regimes murdered those people via starvation largely on purpose, or just through gross negligence. Hopefully, in the event of a famine caused by natural disaster, the opposite would be happening.

You are quite correct that history does not paint a hopeful picture on the subject.


Soylent Green

If 2020 panic is a valid sample, our biggest problem is not lack of elasticity in production, but lack of discipline, empathy, and general sense of humanity in the population. We are still fighting like cavemen when it comes to hoarding groceries, vaccines, you name it.

The entitlement of “Freedom” and unreasonable trust in individual responsibility will be the one that will stand in our way. I am not advocating for dictatorship, but that freedom we cherish so much is a double edged one.

What a myopic take. The world just experienced one of the most seismic cultural and behavioral shifts in human history on a scale that's probably never happened before and the vast majority of people fell in line without too much complaint. Your takeaway is that we should curtail individual liberties even further? lol

Apparently in COVID the most disciplined countries (and small isolated ones) won.

You really think there is a cultural shift?

The US started lifting restrictions well before we had even vaccinated vulnerable old people. A few weeks of inconvenience deemed unconscionable.

Here in Michigan the faster spreading variants are taking hold, people don't appear to care. We may do okay, vaccines appointments are just about available to everyone, but it can be another rough couple of months for no real good reason.

I don’t know where you got this, but there have been countless crises in history, and actually people pull together. They don’t turn into thrill kill cannibals like survivalist publications say. That isn’t to say there aren’t some bad actors, but let’s not over blow this.

Who is hoarding groceries and vaccines? The stores are full. Vaccines are plentiful. The US even gave Canada a bunch of AstraZeneca doses recently.



  Vaccines are plentiful.
The vast majority of Americans are still not fully vaccinated due to shortages (not poor acceptance).

  The US even gave Canada a bunch of AstraZeneca doses recently.
(Also Mexico) Because Biden is purchasing a legacy at the expense of Americans. Americans are still dying, even from the original strain.

Someone has already debunked your unsupported current statement about vaccine shortages. While it’s true that there were shortages in 2020, those were resolved in February, and since then vaccination is one bright spot. The US has delivered the most doses worldwide, and and is near the top when it comes to doses per capita. Your statement is simply just not true.[0]

I’m going to focus on your other statement, about AstraZeneca.

The AZ vaccine isn’t approved for use in the US. Whatever doses we have, we can’t use.

I honestly have no idea where you’re getting your misinformation, because your last line sounds like political bias. It doesn’t even make internal sense. What type of positive legacy would a president have if they were giving away vaccines during a shortage? Also, why would you be opening up access to people at lower risk during a vaccine shortage after months of prioritizing the people at highest risk? (California and Florida has everyone over 16 eligible April 15.)

[0] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/world/covid-vaccina...

Just ran across this earlier today: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/03/22/1021079/united-s...

> The US is about to reach a surprise milestone: too many vaccines, not enough takers

> As production ramps up, the US will soon have many more doses—and not enough people who want them. The change will be rapid: Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated that supply and demand could shift “in the weeks to month ahead.” Walmart, a major distributor of vaccines across the country, has said that the flip could happen within a month to 45 days.

> In some states, the shift from scarcity to abundance is already here. In Idaho, where 20% of people have gotten at least one shot, many appointments have gone unfilled, causing state officials to increase eligibility ahead of schedule. The state plans to open up appointments to those 55 and up beginning March 22.

A market designed to expect people to act in a way that humans have never acted would be an utterly useless market. Self interest is one of the most dependable features of humans, especially in the face of scarcity, and is one of the most effective when exploited correctly.

There’s a rapidly expanding shell of photons 1-2 light years thick that perfectly capture the events on Earth during that time.

Some portion of those photons are heading directly towards a point in space where the will intersect one of the millions of black holes estimated to be in our galaxy.

Some portion of those photons will arrive along a trajectory just outside the event horizon, where their path is bent approximately 180 degrees.

Some portion of those will, at some point in the future, be intercepted by our planet earth...or hopefully an array of telescopes trained and synchronized in such a way as to allow us to reassemble a coherent view of a past earth.

Well, looks like we are unable to “reassemble a coherent view” of current events, even. (And, speaking of physics, the light will die out dissipated by clouds of gas an dust.)

Probably but it’s still fun to think about.

Or we can wait until a black hole swallows another black hole.


The view through the atmosphere is more hazy than it is perfect.

I bet the statistics are pretty dire after 3000 years too.

Super dire. It’d be like trying to photograph yourself in the rear view mirror of a pickup truck parked on Pluto.

On the other hand, in the case of Saggitarius A we have ~50,000 years to figure it out.

Imagine if you could one day somehow triangulate a meteor impact causing that event by looking at the patten of how certain trees on certain geographic locations were affected.

But might just be a volcano. Boring in comparison but not for the people that had to live through it.

So after 2020, we know exactly what's going to happen if that goes down again, right? A third will deny it entirely (sun is fine, just a hoax, air was always that bad, get back to work).

Could we survive today if this happened? A year without any crop yields?

The corn harvest in the US is ~1 quadrillion calories.

That's ~400 calories per day per person (globally). Not good food, but calories still.

So I think a large percentage of people would definitely survive, with a big swing depending on when during the year it happened and how the reaction played out.

Isn't more likely that we'll nuke it instead to give it a 'kick' away from us?

Good reminder to give to https://allfed.info/ again.

For anyone discussing the food system and fragility of society — if you missed “Connections” when it came up here a while ago, it’s brilliant:


After centuries of philosophical and political hand wringing about the fall of Rome, it would be funny if it was caused by a natural event.

Rome was already in decline, but without this it would likely have been more gradual.

By "fall of Rome", do you mean the events ending in 476 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_the_Western_Roman_Empi...) or the events ending in 1453 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Constantinople)? Both seem difficult to connect causally to the weather events of 535-536.

This [1] article posted elsewhere in the thread alludes to the Justinian Plague and this famine hastening to fall of the Eastern Empire. I assume that's what the parent comment is referring to, but I don't see the connection.

1. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/why-536-was-worst-ye...

"Hastening the fall" when the fall happened nine hundred years later? I don't buy it.

yeah that was a pretty tough year


I went back to 1830s on a similar question recently, but granted.. not that far...


At least 4

Slightly less than the amount which causes you to eat all your food reserves.

Could it be extraterrestrials?

If you read the article, most likely not, though some theorists do maintain an extraterrestrial origins though comet impact.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact