Pervasive Arctic lead pollution suggests substantial growth in medieval silver production modulated by plague, climate, and conflict

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

  • Joseph R. McConnell
  • Nathan J. Chellman
  • Andrew I. Wilson
  • Andreas Stohl
  • Monica M. Arienzo
  • Sabine Eckhardt
  • Diedrich Fritzsche
  • Sepp Kipfstuhl
  • Thomas Opel
  • Philip F. Place
  • Steffensen, Jørgen Peder

Lead pollution in Arctic ice reflects large-scale historical changes in midlatitude industrial activities such as ancient lead/silver production and recent fossil fuel burning. Here we used measurements in a broad array of 13 accurately dated ice cores from Greenland and Severnaya Zemlya to document spatial and temporal changes in Arctic lead pollution from 200 BCE to 2010 CE, with interpretation focused on 500 to 2010 CE. Atmospheric transport modeling indicates that Arctic lead pollution was primarily from European emissions before the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. Temporal variability was surprisingly similar across the large swath of the Arctic represented by the array, with 250- to 300-fold increases in lead pollution observed from the Early Middle Ages to the 1970s industrial peak. Superimposed on these exponential changes were pronounced, multiannual to multidecadal variations, marked by increases coincident with exploitation of new mining regions, improved technologies, and periods of economic prosperity; and decreases coincident with climate disruptions, famines, major wars, and plagues. Results suggest substantial overall growth in lead/silver mining and smelting emissions—and so silver production—from the Early through High Middle Ages, particularly in northern Europe, with lower growth during the Late Middle Ages into the Early Modern Period. Near the end of the second plague pandemic (1348 to ∼1700 CE), lead pollution increased sharply through the Industrial Revolution. North American and European pollution abatement policies have reduced Arctic lead pollution by >80% since the 1970s, but recent levels remain ∼60-fold higher than at the start of the Middle Ages.

Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS)
Issue number30
Pages (from-to)14910-14915
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2019

    Research areas

  • Arctic, Ice core, Lead pollution, Middle Ages, Plague

ID: 232013794