The Ilopango Volcano in San Salvador. Source: wikipedia
The Ilopango Volcano in San Salvador. Source: wikipedia

The Ilopango Volcano in El Salavador was responsible for the events in AD 539-40.

The climatic disruption in the 6thcentury was forced by a series of massive volcanic eruptions. Recently the Ilopango volcano was identified as responsible for the events AD 539-40.


Radiocarbon and geologic evidence reveal Ilopango volcano as source of the colossal ‘mystery’ eruption of 539/40 CE
Robert A.Dull, John R. Southon, Steffen Kutterolf, Kevin J.Anchukaitis, Armin Freundt. David B. Wahl. Payson Sheets, Paul Amaroli, Walter Hernandez, Michael C. Wiemann, and Clive Oppenheimer
In: Quaternary Science Reviews (2019) 06.08.2019


Joya de Ceren in San Salvador © San Salvador Tourist Network
Joya de Ceren in San Salvador © San Salvador Tourist Network

Today, the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador towers over a beautiful and serene lake offering countless adventures to nature lovers and cultural tourists aiming to experience the Maya Classic Period (AD 250 – 900).

Sometime in the middle of the first millennium the volcano erupted violently spreading its devastation over a densely populated and intensively cultivated region in the southern Maya realm, causing regional abandonment of an area covering more than 20,000 km2, and destroying countless villages and settlements. One of these is the Joya de Ceren, called The Pompeii of the New World and declared UNESCO World Heritage.

Although long suspicioned as the cause of the events in AD 539-40, neither the regional nor global impacts of the Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) eruption in Mesoamerica have been well appraised. Until now scientists have been met with limitations in available volcanological, chronological, and archaeological.

In this article, the authors present new evidence of the age, magnitude and sulfur release of the TBJ eruption, establishing it as one of the two hitherto unidentified volcanic triggers, which loaded the atmosphere with a serious injection of stratospheric aerosol.

This injection profoundly impacted the climate across the Northern Hemisphere between circa 536 and 550 CE. The new chronology is derived from 100 new radiocarbon measurements performed on three subfossil tree trunks enveloped in proximal TBJ pyroclastic deposits.

The authors have also reassessed the eruption magnitude using terrestrial (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) and near-shore marine TBJ tephra deposit thickness measurements. Together, our new constraints on the age, eruption size and sulfur yield along with Ilopango’s latitude (13.7° N), squarely frame the TBJ as the major climate-forcing eruption of AD 539 or 540, which has been identified in bipolar ice cores and sourced to the tropics. The eruption merit a rating of 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, and posits it as larger than the 1816 eruption of Tambora, which caused the “year without a summer.”

In addition to deepening appreciation of the TBJ eruption’s impacts in Mesoamerica, the research links this volcanic eruption to the major Northern Hemisphere climatic downturn of the mid-6th century CE, and offers another piece in the puzzle of understanding Eurasian history of the period.



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