A Historical Ice Core from the Heart of Europe


With generous support from: 



In 2013, a joint venture of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, and the SoHP retrieved a 73-meter (240ft) ice core from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss Alps.  Analysis of the ice core, at the Climate Change Institute, is producing invaluable new data about climate change and human-climate interactions from the last ca. 2,000 years. Concurrently, Harvard historians are combing pre-industrial written records to create a new geo-database of climate events, which complements the scientific data.

As documented here, a seven-person team from the Climate Change Institute, the Institut für Umweltphysik, University of Heidelberg (Germany) and the Physics Institute, University of Bern (Switzerland), recovered the ice core over the course of one week at the Colle Gnifetti (CG) glacier saddle of the Monte Rosa Massif (4450 m.a.s.l.).  It will be analyzed using a host of technologies not available when previous CG cores were drilled and featuring a path-breaking collaboration of humanists and scientists.


To this end the University of Maine and Harvard University have been producing ultra-high-resolution measurements of dust and other impurities using state-of-the-art laser based technology developed in the Climate Change Institute’s W. M. Keck Laser Ice Facility at the Climate Change Institute and a new historical geodatabase of the climate of pre-modern Europe from written sources, collected and analyzed at Harvard.

The resulting records are allowing the first detailed, ice core-based assessment of human-climate interactions during the last two millennia. The new technology is minimally destructive and will allow the permanent preservation of the new ice core record. The project is supported by a grant from the Arcadia Foundation.

Evaluation of this unique archive involved researchers from Alfred-Wegener-Institute, Bremerhaven (Germany) and the Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg (Switzerland), and the University of Nottingham, (U.K.).

Photos by Dr. Nicole Spaulding

Click here for a step by step methodology


Dr. Nicole Spaulding describes how laser ablation extracts ancient
ice particles for mass spectrometry of chemical signals of
climate change from the SoHP Colle Gnifetti Historical Ice Core

On Nov. 11, 2015, The CCI-SoHP team presented preliminary results at a signature event at Harvard University.

 Link to data from this project

Landmark publications quickly followed:

Alexander More et al., "The role of historical context in understanding past climate, pollution and health data in trans-disciplinary studies," GeoHealth (AGU), 2, 162-170 (2018), DOI:10.1029/2017GH000121.

Pascal Bohleber et al., "Temperature and mineral dust variability recorded in two low-accumulation Alpine ice cores over the last millennium,Climate of the Past, 14, 21-37 (2018), https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-14-21-2018

Nicole Spaulding et al., "A New Multielement Method for LA-ICP-MS Data Acquisition from Glacier Ice Cores," Environmental Science and Technology, 51.22, 13282–13287 (2017) DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b03950

Loveluck et al., "Alpine ice-core evidence for the transformation of the European monetary system, AD 640 670," Antiquity 2018 https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2018.110

Alexander More, et al., "Next Generation Ice Core Technology Reveals True Minimum Natural Levels of Lead (Pb) in the Atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death,"  GeoHealth (AGU), 1, 211-219 (2017) (DOI: 10.1002/2017GH000064)

Matthew Luongo et al., Possible Icelandic Tephra Found in European Colle Gnifetti Glacier, G-Cubed (AGU), 18.11 (2017) (DOI: 10.1002/2017GC007022)

Sharon Sneed et al., "New LA-ICP-MS cryocell and calibration technique for sub-millimeter analysis of ice cores," Journal of Glaciology, 61.226, 233-242 (2015) doi: 10.3189/2015JoG14J139.


PRESS HIGHLIGHTS (click to expand)

"We've been poisoning ourselves for the last 2000 years," The Guardian.

"A 14th-century plague helped reveal just how long humans have polluted the planet," Popular Science Magazine.

"An ice core reveals how profoundly the Black Death change society," Forbes Magazine.

"Humans Polluted the Air Much Earlier than Previously Thought," Smithsonian Magazine.

"L'homme rejette du plomb dans l'atmosphère depuis au moins 2000 ans," Science et Vie.

"Human Activity Has Polluted European Air for 2000 Years," Eos (American Geophysical Union).

"Europe's Lead Pollution Dropped to Zero Only Once in the Last 2000 Years: And All it Took Was the Black Death," Atlas Obscura.

"Die Bleizeit," [The Lead Age] Süddeutsche Zeitung.

"Humans are to blame for lead pollution: Study of glacial ice reveals the toxin was not present in the air when industry was brought to a standstill by the Black Death," Daily Mail.

"Harvard Study Challenges Assumptions of Natural Lead Levels," Harvard Gazette.

"Die größte Wirtschaftskatastrophe der Geschichte," Der Spiegel.

"Die Sünden der Alten," Frankfurter Allgemein.

"Le plomb: une pollution ancienne," Journal de l'Environnement

"Bleigehalt: Nur die Pest sorgte für saubere Luft," Der Standard.

"Analyse van ijskern onthult de waarheid over lood: "We zijn onszelf al 2.000 jaar aan het vergiftigen" [Analysis of ice core reveals the truth about lead: we've been poisoning ourselves for the last 2000 years] De Morgen.

"SoHP and Climate Change Institute Awarded $.5M Arcadia Grant for Historical Ice Core Project," Harvard Gazette.

"The Science of History," Harvard Magazine, March-April 2016.

"Climate Data Suggests Famine Worsened the Black Death," Archaeology, January 07, 2016.

"Did Climate Change Worsen the Black Death," Harvard Gazette, January 5, 2016.

"Plague, eruptions and pollution — welcome to life in the 6th century" The Times of London

Ann Gibbons, "Why 536AD was the Worst Year to Be Alive," Science 11/14/18

"The Worst Year to Be a Human Has Been Revealed by Researchers," CNN

"Scientists Have Identified the Worst Year in History," Time Magazine

"Climat: l'humanité a-t-elle vécu sa pire année en 536?" Le Figaro

"AD536: The Year That Winter Never Ended," New Scientist

"Study Looks for Location of Medieval Volcanic Eruption," Archaeology Magazine

"Harvard historian pinpoints the worst year ever to be alive," Times of Israel

"Laser technology uncovers medieval secrets locked in Alpine ice core" Phys.org

Matthew Garbiele, "How a Volcano (sort of) Caused the Middle Ages," Forbes 11/15/18

"Researchers Identify 536 A.D. as The Absolute Worst Year Ever" Popular Mechanics

"536 nach Christus war schlimmstes Jahr der Geschichte" Süddeutsche Zeitung

"L’anno peggiore della storia dell’umanità? Il 536 d. C." Corriere della Sera

"Quale è stato l'anno peggiore della Storia?" Focus

"Eruzioni e carestie, il 536 d.C. è stato l'anno peggiore della storia" Ansa Science & Technology

"What Was The Worst Time To Be Alive In Human History?" IFLScience

"Waarom het jaar 536 ‘het ergste jaar ooit’ was" Algemeen Dagblad

"What a Year to be Alive: How Darkness Famine and Disease Made 536 the Worst Year to Be Alive," The Sun

"Why 536 AD was ‘the worst year to be alive’" The Times of India

"Why 536 AD was the worst year to be alive" Daily Mail

"Scientists Have Determined The Worst Year to Be Alive in Human History" Science Alert

"L'anno più terribile nella storia dell'umanità? Secondo la scienza è il 536" Quotidiano.net

"Ледниковые керны рассказали подробности о сильном похолодании в 536 году" N+1

"War 536 das schlimmste Jahr der Geschichte?" Der Standard

"Eruzioni e carestie, il 536 D.C. è stato l'anno peggiore della storia" Il Mattino

"Harvard Researcher Determines That 536 A.D. Was History’s Worst Year — Here’s Why" All That's Interesting

"536 Was a Garbage Year for Mankind" LiveScience

"536, el peor año de la historia: vivir era más difícil que durante la peste negra" El Español

"What a Year to Be Alive: How Darkness, Famine and Disease Made 536AD the Worst Year in Human History," Scottish Sun

"What was the worst year to be alive, ever? AD536, when winter came — for real," News Australia

"¿Per què el 536 va ser el pitjor any de la història de la humanitat?" El Periodico de Catalunya

"Les scientifiques ont déterminé quelle a été la pire année de l’histoire de l’humanité" Trust My Science

"La pire année de l'Histoire de l'humanité n'est pas 1918 ou 1349 : c'est l'an 536 et voici pourquoi" Atlantico

"Imagine que puede viajar en el tiempo: éste es el año al que NO debe ir, el peor año de la Historia" Telemundo

"You think 2018 is the worst year ever? Try the real dark age: 536" The Guardian

"公元536年,或是人类史上灾难最严重的一年!" Tencent

"Najhujše leto v zgodovini človeštva: 536" Primorske Novice

"The Worst Year to Be Alive – 536 AD…Harvard Scientist Concludes…Mysterious Fog to Blame" Mystic Post

"AD536: the worst year to be alive - ever" News.com

"The Worst Time in History to Be Alive, According to Science" History

"'Scientists' Determine That the Worst Year in Human History Was… 536 AD." Watts Up With That

"Scientists claim A.D. 536 was the worst year to be alive" Daily Caller

"How darkness, famine and disease made 536 AD 'the worst year in human history'" Best World News

"Why 536 AD was the worst year to be alive" Celebrity Best News

"Un estudio determina el peor año para estar vivo en la historia humana, y no es ninguno de los que estás pensando" Gizmodo

"Dünya 536 yılı ve takip eden yıllarda çok korkutucu bir yermiş" BasNews

"Why is 536 years the worst year in human history?" KodKey

"Laser Technology Uncovers Medieval Secrets Locked in Alpine Ice Core" Science & Technology Research News

"Il peggior anno in cui essere vivi" Il Post

"Science ID’s 536 A.D. As the Worst Year To Be Alive" UK RemoNews

"Cataclysmic eruption may have kicked off ‘worst year' in history for humans - study" RT News

"Identify the year 536 A.D. as the worst in history" Tech2

"536 Dopo Cristo: Annus Horribilis per L'Europa!" Daniele Mancini Archeologia

"The worst year to be human was A.D. 536, researchers say" ViralEar

"El peor año para vivir de la historia de la humanidad fue el 536 d.C." Terrae Antiquae

"¿Por qué el 536 fue el peor año en la historia de la humanidad?" Vanguardia

"This is why 536 AD was the worst year in human history" BitMarkNews

"Scientists figure out the worst year ever to be alive on Earth" New York Post

"Iceland Possibly To Blame For “Worst Year To Be Alive” In World History" Reykjavik Grapevine

"Icelandic Volcano Accused of Causing the Worst Year in History" Guide to Iceland Now

"The worst year in human history was 536, historian claims" Newshub

"Researchers Determine 536 A.D. The 'Worst Year To Be Alive'" Mysterious Universe

"Des chercheurs ont déterminé la pire année de l’histoire de l’humanité" SciencePost

"Des scientifiques ont déterminé la pire année de l'histoire de l'humanité" MaxiSciences

"Mystérieux brouillard, été glacial : l’an 536 a été la pire année climatique de l’humanité" Numerama

"L’an 536, la pire année de l’histoire de l’humanité" L'Edition du Soir

"Selon Harvard, L'Année 536 Était La Pire Dans L'Histoire de L'Humanité" FZN

"Une carotte glaciaire révèle que 536 fut la pire année de l'histoire de l'humanité" Sciences et Avenir

"Quelle a été la pire année de tous les temps pour l’humanité ?" Futura Sciences

"L'an 536 : la pire année de l'histoire humaine" LeVif

"El peor año de nuestra Historia, por una erupción volcánica" Ideal

"Por qué el 536 fue el peor año en la historia de la humanidad" Infobae

"¿Por qué el 536 fue el peor año de la historia para ‘estar vivo’?" Eslang

"El peor año de la historia de la humanidad" La Vanguardia

"Por qué el año 536 fue el peor en la Historia de la humanidad" Clarin Mundo

"A névoa misteriosa que tornou 536 o pior ano da história para se estar na Terra" Globo

"Cientistas cravam qual foi o pior ano para estar vivo na história" Super Interessante

"Cientistas identificam o pior ano da História" DN

"Ciência elege o 'pior ano da história para estar vivo'" Itapema

"Forskare: Då var det värsta året att leva för människan" Aftonbladet

"Eldgos á Íslandi knésetti Evrópu og Asíu við upphaf miðalda" Kvennabladid


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Executive Committee

Paul Mayewski Climate Change Institute

Prof. Paul A. Mayewski

Director & Distinguished Maine Professor, Climate Change Institute
School of Earth & Climate Sciences; School of Marine Sciences; School of Policy and International Affairs
University of Maine
Michael McCormick Harvard Science of the Human Past

Prof. Michael McCormick

Chair, Initiative for the Science of the Human Past
Goelet Professor of Medieval History
Co-Director, Max Planck Harvard Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean
Alexander More

Prof. Alexander More

Research associate (History Department, Harvard) - Assistant Research Professor (Climate Change Institute, UMaine)

Alexander More (PhD, Harvard) is a historian whose research focuses on the impact of climate change on population health and the economy....

Read more about Alexander More

Research Team


Prof. Joyce E. Chaplin

James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History; Chair, American Studies
Department of History, Harvard University
Heather Clifford

Heather Clifford

MS Student, Research Assistant
Climate Change Institute, University of Maine

Mark Royer

Ph.D. Candidate
Climate Change Institute, University of Maine