Ancient Romans Generated Enough Air Pollution To Cool All Of Europe, New Study Suggests

Published June 7, 2019

While Ancient Romans were capable of actively affecting the climate, we're far better at it than they were — and that should worry us all.

Sack Of Rome Painting

Wikimedia CommonsWhile Ancient Roman climate change was minuscule in comparison to what we’ve wrought today, it’s a sobering reminder of how human activity has a direct impact.

In terms of our contemporary climate crisis, looking to the future often seems to be the wisest course of action. Some say that we face the disastrous collapse of ecosystems and irreversible devastation to countless cities by 2050. As such, there’s much to be done — but a glimpse into the past, too then, is worth a look.

According to a new study published in the journal Climate of the Past, the Ancient Romans substantially affected Europe’s climate in the days of Antiquity. By generating soot and releasing carbon from burning large quantities of organic matter, and clearing land for agriculture, the consequent air pollution caused by these actions would have actively decreased Europe’s temperature by 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

While this discovery is impressive, it is utterly trivial when compared to our current, global emergency. In other words, the Romans had nothing on humanity in 2019. In fact, the cooling effect of the air pollution they produced would have proved to be irrelevant anyway as the climate was entering a warming phase during the empire’s height between 250 B.C. and 400 A.D.

Regardless, the study is a sobering illustration of how humans have been affecting their surroundings in Europe and South-East Asia as early as 7,000 years ago.

Incendie A Rome Painting

Wikimedia CommonsThe Ancient Romans burned so much agricultural matter that the resultant air pollution would have cooled all of Europe by 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We looked for the first time at whether anthropogenic aerosol impacts had an impact on climate a long time ago,” Anina Gilgen of Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETC) explained.

Gilgen and her team took existing data on how much land the ancient Romans used to farm, as well as how many homes and other industries occupied their territory, to estimate the amount of air pollution the empire created from the land they had cleared.

They then factored that data into a model of Europe’s climate during that time.

Overall, the results showed that while deforestation and the release of greenhouse gases could have warmed temperatures by 0.27 degrees Fahrenheit, air pollution really would have produced a cooling effect. Ultimately, the empire’s activity led to an average drop of 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which lowered Europe’s temperature to 32.3 degrees on average.

“It might rather be that air pollution was a problem for people living in cities,” said Gilgen.

Climate Change Protest

Flickr/Garry KnightMan-made climate change is now at its highest known point in history even though the ancients were affecting Earth’s temperatures millennia ago.

“The novelty here is in their thinking about what the [Roman’s] aerosol contribution would be, which seems to be quite considerable,” said Joy Singarayer, a climate change expert at the University of Reading, who was not involved in Gilgen’s study.

The biggest takeaway from all this is two-fold: while human activities have been affecting Earth’s climate for millennia, the temperature shifts caused by Ancient Rome were null when compared with modern man-made climate change.

Sun Burst

Christopher Michel/FlickrHuman impact on the planet’s climate will continue to worsen if drastic measures aren’t taken as soon as possible.

Ultimately, Gilgen’s study illustrates how capable we were as a species of altering the Earth’s climate even thousands of years ago. In a world following the Industrial Revolution where corporate interests seem to override scientific concerns, we’re barreling past our ancient ancestors in this regard — full-steam ahead.

Next, take a look at these pictures of global warming that prove you have no more excuse not to “get” climate change. Then, take a look at climate change denier Sarah Palin continuing her crusade by taking an unsuccesful dig at Bill Nye.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
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Margaritoff, Marco. "Ancient Romans Generated Enough Air Pollution To Cool All Of Europe, New Study Suggests.", June 7, 2019, Accessed June 13, 2024.