In the late Third Century BC, about half of northern China's population perished in wide-spread famines which may have been caused by an Icelandic volcano eruption, two NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists said.

In an abstract and presentation prepared for the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union Thursday, Dec. 10 at session on climate and ice, Drs. Kevin Pang and James Slavin said the volcanic cloud may have blocked the sun for long period of time.

A cold, wet spell began in late 209 BC, Pang said, based on studies of the Chinese chronicles, an ancient history, with the aid of Dr. Hung-hsiang Chou of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.

The people of northern China were extremely unlucky during that period, Pang said. Not only were the forces of nature aligned against them, but their numbers were further decimated by the despotic rule of the Chin Emperors and an ongoing war of succession between rebel factions.

The weather records of the Chinese chronicles were corroborated by Greenland ice core data which show peak of sulfuric acid dated at 210 30 BC deposited there by very large Icelandic eruption.

Additionally, study of the cycles in the texture of Danish bogs also has shown tha the period of about 205 BC were wet years for the entire northern European Plain.

Solar disturbances also have been suggested as cause of climatic change. At least five auroras were recorded in China from 209 to 204 BC, high frequency for ancient texts. Analyses of Chinese and European auroral records show peak of solar activity in 205 BC or shortly before.

But Pang said the increased solar activity would not be consistent with the cold spell.

The cloud from the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, however, could have made "the stars invisible for three months," Pang said, quoting the Chinese chronicles.

He said he and his colleagues also determined the relative importance of the climatic change and the battles of the war of succession by examining regional differences in grain prices in 205 BC.

They found that grain prices west of the Yellow River were twice as high as elsewhere in the northern regions. But the campaigns were waged to the east and south of the river, showing the war was not the primary cause of the shortages.

The 1987 Fall Meeting of the AGU was scheduled for the San Francisco Civic Auditorium Dec. 7-11.

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