Something Rather Curious Happened To The Environment During The Black Death


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Paulus Fürst / Wikimedia Commons.

Humans are terrible. Yes, we’ve managed to do some pretty amazing things, like land on the Moon and cure some pretty awful diseases. We also, however, manage to get people like Rick Perry into power and dump so much plastic into the oceans that we’re literally driving the evolution of plastic-eating bacteria.

So, on balance, humans are terrible. Nature is clearly aware of this, and occasionally tries to wipe us out. The Black Death back in the 14th century was a good example of this – it wiped out 20 million people in just a few decades. Now, as revealed in a new study, this plague may have also had a surprisingly positive effect on the environment too.


Writing in the journal GeoHealth, a team of researchers led by Harvard University have been tracking regional and global lead pollution over time, as revealed by a series of cutting-edge ice core analyses. Generally speaking, mining and smelting – along with a whole host of related industrial processes – belches out plenty of lead into the environment, into both the atmosphere and the hydrosphere.

Lead is not a particularly nice thing to ingest or inhale. It damages your nervous system and digestive system quite severely, and other animals fair little better. It doesn’t belong in the environment in such large quantities, but in the name of mining, it is – and has been for the last 2,000 years, perhaps far longer.

Tracking the concentrations of lead in the environment via these ice cores, the team noticed that during the Black Death – specifically between 1349 and 1353 – the air was lead-free for the first and only time over the last two millennia. As it turns out, with so many people dying so quickly, mining for lead became a far less important priority than just basic survival.

“During the Black Death pandemic, demographic and economic collapse interrupted metal production and atmospheric lead dropped to undetectable levels,” the team write in their study.


Other factors could be at play here, but the fall in lead levels is so extreme that it would be one hell of a peculiar coincidence that another explanation, other than that cited by this new study, may be more valid.

Lead concentration in an ice core, from the year 1 to 2007. More et al./GeoHealth

Studies like this make it hard to argue against the idea that with fewer people around, there will be far less environmental destruction. Fewer humans equals fewer resources required, which equals less lead in the sky and plastic in the ocean.

This may sound like a rallying cry for an environmental supervillain/antihero to rise up and save the world from ourselves, but there is, ladies and gentlemen, another way.

The Black Death had a noticeable effect on the proliferation of our species when it took place, as this incredible video reveals. AMNH via YouTube


As things like the Paris agreement or the Human Genome Project clearly show, humans are capable of working together to tackle monumental problems. So instead of waiting until nature decides to take another swing at us, we could come up with alternative solutions to our damaging behaviors that suit everyone.

It’d beat another plague, that’s for sure.

[H/T: Gizmodo]


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