EGU General Assembly 2020
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the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Volcanic Impacts on Climate and Society in First Millennium BCE Babylonia

Francis Ludlow, Conor Kostick, Rhonda McGovern, and Laura Farrelly
Francis Ludlow et al.
  • Department of History & Centre for Environmental Humanities, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland (

This paper capitalizes upon the recent availability of much-improved ice-core chronologies of explosive volcanism for the first millennium BCE in combination with the remarkable record of meteorological data preserved in Babylonian astronomical diaries, written on cuneiform tablets spanning 652-61BC and now housed in the British Museum. These diaries comprise systematic economic data on agricultural prices, weather observations at an hourly resolution, river heights for the Euphrates and other phenomena. Our initial results reveal strong correspondences between multiple previously unrecognized accounts of solar dimming, extreme cold weather and major ice-core volcanic signals. We also observe anomalously high spring floods of the Euphrates at Babylon, following major tropical eruptions, which is consistent with climate modelling of anomalously elevated winter precipitation in the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Turkey. With the astronomical diaries also providing systematic meteorological information (unparalleled in resolution and scope until at least the Early Modern period) ranging from wind direction and intensity, to the level of cloud cover and references to atmospheric clarity (clear vs. dusty skies), to the general conditions (temperature and precipitation) for all seasons, these sources can in combination with natural archives such as ice-cores open an unprecedented window into the Middle Eastern climate of the first millennium BCE.

Nor are these or other written sources from the region silent on the societal consequences of extreme weather and other climatic shocks. We will thus finish our paper with a brief case study of responses to the climatic impacts of explosive volcanism during the reign of Esarhaddon, ruler of Assyria, who's reign from 672 BCE suddenly became a troubled one. Contemporary prophecies indicated a loss of cattle, the failure of dates and sesame and the arrival of locusts. Such prophecies were often descriptions of events already occurring and along with predictions dated to 671 of 'darkness in the land', crop failure and famine, there is definite evidence that Esarhaddon resorted to the ritual of placing a substitute (sacrificial) ruler on the throne for 100 days. This did not, however, resolve the dangers perceived by the Assyrian ruler and he repeated the ritual in 670, along with apotropaic rituals against malaria and plague. That year, nevertheless, saw revolt. Herdsmen refused to supply oxen and sheep to the government officials, who could not travel the land without armed escort. Regional governors appropriated revenues and construction workers halted brick production. Esarhaddon acted decisively in late 670, early 669, executing a large number of rebellious Assyrian nobles. 669 and 668 remained troubled, however, with prophecies of locusts and plague among cattle and humans, while in 667 Egypt revolted against Assyria in the context of possible shortages of barely and straw.

This paper is a contribution to the Irish Research Council-funded “Climates of Conflict in Ancient Babylonia” (CLICAB) project.

How to cite: Ludlow, F., Kostick, C., McGovern, R., and Farrelly, L.: Volcanic Impacts on Climate and Society in First Millennium BCE Babylonia, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-22127,, 2020

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Presentation version 1 – uploaded on 06 May 2020
  • CC1: Comment on EGU2020-22127, Sergey Osipov, 09 May 2020

    Dear Prof. Ludlow,

    Thank you for sharing this research. The Middle East is a climatic hotspot, very sensitive to the external forcing and volcanic forcing is among major climate drivers in the region. I think your research is a very vivid illustration of the volcanic impact on climate.
    We now know that volcanic eruptions may produce not only thermal and hydrologic stress but also UV stress due to the ozone loss in the tropics. Do you see any historical evidence of exposure to UV radiation after major eruptions? The health-hazardous effects include skin burns, eye damage, cancerogenesis, and also plant damage, which affects the growth rate and leaves count.

    Also, I would like to mention that the Red Sea and the nearby coral reefs may contain useful information similar to the ice cores. The reason why corals integrate the volcanic signal has to do with the global and regional climate responses to volcanic eruptions. Briefly, volcanic forcing causes the anomalously positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation, which causes warming in Europe and cooling in the Middle East. During the winter season, this cooling produces unusually strong convection in the Red Sea and drives the overall deep water formation. In the case of 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo convection brought nutrients to the surface, produced algae bloom, and caused corals reef bleaching for a few years in the Gulf of Aqaba. There is historical evidence of the similar deep water formation events after the 1982 El-Chicon eruption. Details on the physical mechanism and references are available in the Osipov et al. 2017, Regional Effects of the Mount Pinatubo Eruption on the Middle East and the Red Sea, and in this presentation

    Best regards,
    Sergey Osipov