In a new study, scientists and archaeologists from the University of Nottingham, the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, and Harvard University, showed that the highest levels of air pollution before the modern era occurred around 800 years ago.
The new data represents the highest-resolution, most detailed and chronologically accurate record in existence for pollution, climate change and economic growth over the past two millennia.
The natural record was retrieved from an alpine glacier (Colle Gnifetti) well known among researchers in Germany, Switzerland (as reported in the New York Times), Italy, and the U.S. for the quality of its ice which, due to ideal conditions at the site, allows scientists to chemically identify changes in pollution and climate year by year, and even season by season, thanks to the use of the Climate Change Institute’s cutting-edge laser technology and expertise. Historians then painstakingly matched the data with documents preserved in the archives and libraries of Europe, bringing history to life with a warning for the present.
“The mid-late 12th century had the same levels of lead pollution as we see in the mid-17th century and even in 1890, so our notions of atmospheric pollution starting in the industrial revolution are wrong,” said Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham.
Comparing data obtained by analyzing glacial ice and historical records, the team showed how political crises and wars left a mark on Europe’s economic growth and environment under some of the most celebrated English kings, Henry II, John Lackland, and Richard the Lionheart.
“By shining a laser on centuries-old ice we’ve learned to read glaciers as we read a book. We’re doing both to shed light on economic history and its health implications,” added Alexander More of the Climate Change Institute, Long Island University, and Science of the Human Past at Harvard.