Asteroid Impact Triggered Black Death, And 'It Could Happen Again,' Scientist Warns

The devastating Black Death pandemic that killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people around the world and peaked in Europe in the mid-14th century (1346-1353) may have been triggered by an asteroid impact, according to a scientific researcher.

The researcher, who warned that a similar impact could occur at any moment, noted that devastating asteroid impacts have occurred more frequently in recent history than previously thought. The rates have been underestimated because past writers have misunderstood the nature of asteroid impact events due to lack of scientific understanding.

In his book, New Light On The Black Death: The Cosmic Connection, dendrochronologist Mike Baillie of Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, presents evidence from scientific and historical records that the Black Death, estimated to have killed about two-thirds of the population of Europe, including millions in Asia and Africa, was probably not caused by bubonic plague as widely believed, but by an asteroid impact in the 14th century.

The dominant narrative with regard to the Black Death is that it was an outbreak of bubonic plague that originated in the plains of Central Asia. It was brought to Europe in 1343 by flea-infested rats through the Silk Road.

Black Death
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The underlying causative agent of bubonic plague is the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

But Baillie highlights some problems arising from supposing that the Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague transmitted by flea-infested rats.

"At its most basic, the problem is with those rats and fleas. For the conventional wisdom to work there have to be hosts of infected rats and they have to be moving at alarming speed... Moreover, these rats must have been happy to move to cool northern areas even though bubonic plague is a disease that requires relatively warm temperatures. Then, when there are water barriers, these rats board ships to keep the momentum going."
Baillie's theory that the Black Death was the deadly environmental aftermath of an asteroid impact that occurred in the 1340s was based on his observations as a dendrochronologist of distinctive tree ring patterns coinciding with known periods of environmental catastrophe in the past 1,500 years. Previous studies have linked asteroid impact events in the years 539, 626, 1014 and 1908, with high levels of ammonium in ice core samples from Greenland. Baillie also found peculiar tree ring patterns that coincided with these periods.

He found the same tree ring and ammonium in ice core signatures occurring around the time of the Black Death, implying a major asteroid impact event preceding the Black Death.

Specifically, he found that ammonium levels in the ice-cores coincided directly with an earthquake event that occurred on January 25, 1348, which a 14th century writer described as a "corruption of the atmosphere."

"Looking at the structure of tree rings we can tell that around 1348, 1349 there was a major environmental change which led to a downturn in tree growth. This was so major that we are proposing it could have been an extra-terrestrial impact... Anything that happened in the past can happen again, it could happen tonight."
An asteroid collision could have caused a "corruption of the atmosphere" or a drastic change in the environment if it exploded in the atmosphere. The 1908 Tunguska asteroid impact that devastated large areas of Siberia is believed to have been an air burst that left no crater as evidence of the event.

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However, a human at a distance from the airburst might see only a flash of light, hear the noise of explosion, feel an earthquake, witness a tsunami or contamination of the atmosphere by gas and dust clouds due to the explosion. And given a limited level of scientific understanding, he might be unaware of the nature of the event that triggered the effects he observed and thus record for posterity "a corruption of the atmosphere."

Baillie notes that evidence from ice cores shows that impacts have occurred regularly in recent history, but the historical records have missed them due to lack of understanding of the true nature of the events. Thus, past writers have reported asteroid impact events simply as earthquakes, tsunamis, fire and lightning from heaven, and "corruption of the atmosphere."

He illustrates this point with an example from history: The great Antioch earthquake of AD 526 was described as involving sparks of fire, like bolts of lightning, appearing out of the air and incinerating victims.

Twenty-first century observers would very likely describe the great Antioch earthquake as a meteorite impact event.

And to back up his claim that a meteorite impact occurred at the time of the Black Plague, Baillie quotes extensively from Samuel K. Cohn's book, The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance, which documents frequent references to earthquakes, heavenly portents such as comets and fire from heaven, thunder, tempests, noisome smoke, and dust clouds causing death on a large scale in 14th century accounts of events preceding the Black Death.

Black Death
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He notes that historians have largely ignored the accounts as hysterical metaphors by distraught witnesses.

Baillie argues that apart from the direct physical effect of the impact causing mass death, a massive asteroid could have caused a drastic change in the composition of the atmosphere, creating ideal conditions for the spread of deadly infections.

"We have discovered that around this time there was some sort of major event and I am proposing this could have been an extra-terrestrial impact. This would have caused a corruption of the atmosphere, something major like that, which made the population highly susceptible to disease."
Baillie is not the first researcher or author who has questioned the widely accepted view that the Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague. Although many scientists accept the bubonic plague explanation of the Black Death based on 2010 and 2011 studies that conducted an analysis of DNA from the remains of victims across Europe, several researchers have presented competing theories.

For instance, in 1984, Graham Twigg published his book, The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal, in which he argued that the climatic and ecological conditions in Europe at the time made it unlikely that rats and fleas were able to cause bubonic plague by transmitting the pathogen Yersinia pestis.

Another author, Gunnar Karlsson, pointed out in 2000 the odd fact that the Black Death killed more than half of the population of Iceland although there were no rats in Iceland at the time.

Although some astrobiologists, such as Chandra Wickramasinghe and his colleague Professor Milton Wainwright at the Buckingham Center for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham, have suggested that biological material such as microbial DNA that are potentially infectious are constantly raining down from outer space, Baillie only argued that the asteroid impact caused a dramatic change in the atmosphere and that the change might have caused people to die or created conditions that caused already existing infectious diseases to spread over a wider than normal area.

Of greater concern than what happened in the past is Baillie's warning that a similar asteroid impact could occur "at any moment," sparking the Black Death once again.

Are we prepared?

[Images: Wikimedia Commons]