History Warns Us Of Drought’s Destructive Forces

History Warns US Of Drought’s Destructive Forces

The role of drought in the fall of ancient Mayan civilisation highlights the vital need today for water management in fighting the impacts of climate change.

The Mayan civilisation in what is now Mexico perished more than a thousand years ago not just because of drought, but perhaps because of too much reliance on water in reservoirs.

The story of the rise and decline of ancient civilisations has resonance for today. And researchers at Vienna University of Technology in Austria, who modelled what they calculate must have been the pattern of events, have confirmed, once again, that prolonged drought probably brought a culture and a people to collapse.

But, they warn, the story is not a simple one. The Mayans may have been, in a sense, victims of their success in confronting drought. Their own irrigation technology may have made them more vulnerable at a time of population growth and extended drought.

“Water influences society and society influences water,” says Linda Kuil, a socio-hydrologist at the Centre for Water Resource Systems in Vienna and lead author of a study published in Water Resources Research journal.

Response to drought

“The water supply determines how much food is available, so that in turn affects the growth of populations. Conversely, the population increases may interfere with the natural water cycle through the construction of reservoirs, for example.”

She and colleagues set out to model not just rainfall, but the pattern of a society’s response to precipitation and drought. They were not the first to do so. Drought and climate change have been linked to the collapse of the Assyrian empire 2,700 years ago, and to the disaster that overtook the Bronze Age rulers of the eastern Mediterranean.

“The water supply determines how much food is available, so that in turn affects the growth of populations”

Climate shifts have been linked to the making of the Chinese empire and the advance of the Mongol hordes in the 13th century. And climate change has also been implicated in modern conflict.

But fallen European and Asian civilisations left testimony in the form of written records or enduring mythology. The Mayans left only their stone structures in Yucatan in Mexico as evidence that they had been here at all.

Water on tap

The Vienna researchers think that the Mayan people coped with drought by building reservoirs to tide them over the crisis. Populations could be expected to decline in a drought, but would continue to grow if water was on tap.

Water in a natural sinkhole at the site of the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá would have been vital in times of drought. Image: E. Kehnel via Wikimedia CommonsWater in a natural sinkhole at the site of the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá would have been vital in times of drought. Image: E. Kehnel via Wikimedia CommonsParadoxically, this may introduce vulnerability: if population grows, but the water management system stays the same, then a prolonged dry spell could be devastating.

And this, the researchers think, could be enough to explain the decline. Their own model delivers what they called “plausible feedbacks” between a society and the water resources it believes itself to be managing, to show that a modest reduction in rainfall could lead to an 80% population collapse.

“When it comes to scarce resources, the simplest solutions might turn out to be superficial and not always the best ones,” Kuil says.

“You have to change people’s behaviour, reassess society’s dependency on this resource and reduce consumption – otherwise society may in fact be more vulnerable to catastrophes rather than safer, despite these clever technical solutions.” – Climate News Network

About the Author

Tim Radford, freelance journalistTim Radford is a freelance journalist. He worked for The Guardian for 32 years, becoming (among other things) letters editor, arts editor, literary editor and science editor. He won the Association of British Science Writers award for science writer of the year four times. He served on the UK committee for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. He has lectured about science and the media in dozens of British and foreign cities. 

Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolutionBook by this Author:

Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolution
by Tim Radford.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon. (Kindle book)

enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfrdehiiditjakomsfaptruesswsvthtrurvi

LATEST VIDEOS

Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
by Lowell D. Stott
As concern grows over human-induced climate change, many scientists are looking back through Earth’s history to events…
Climate Change Alters What's Possible In Restoring Florida's Everglades
Climate Change Alters What's Possible In Restoring Florida's Everglades
by Gardner William Nuttle
The Everglades are a vast network of subtropical freshwater wetland and estuarine ecosystems that once spanned the…
The US Defense Department Is Worried About Climate Change – And Also A Huge Carbon Emitter
The US Defense Department Is Worried About Climate Change – And Also A Huge Carbon Emitter
by Neta C. Crawford
Scientists and security analysts have warned for more than a decade that global warming is a potential national…
Blue Ocean Event : Game Over?
by Just Have a Think
A Blue Ocean Event, or Ice-Free Arctic, is the source of almost fever pitch speculation in the climate science world.…
Climate Change - The Facts by Sir David Attenborough
by David Attenborough, BBC
After one of the hottest years on record, Sir David Attenborough looks at the science of climate change and potential…
Why it’s time to think about human extinction
by Kerwin Rae
After listening to this ep with Dr David Suzuki, you’ll never be the same again. The environmentalist, activist,…
Record Temperatures 20-25C Above Norm in far North
by Paul Beckwith
The Northwest Territories of Canada had March temperatures above 20C for the first time (hit 21.6C or 71F); breaking…
Why New CO₂ Capture Technology Is Not The Magic Bullet Against Climate Change
Why New CO₂ Capture Technology Is Not The Magic Bullet Against Climate Change
by Chris Hawes
According to a recent major UN report, if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5 °C and prevent the most catastrophic…

LATEST ARTICLES

Limiting Warming To 1.5C Could Prevent Thousands Of Heat Deaths In US Cities
Limiting Warming To 1.5C Could Prevent Thousands Of Heat Deaths In US Cities
by Thomas Harrisson
Holding global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, rather than 2C or 3C, could help prevent thousands…
Healthcare In World’s Largest Economies ‘accounts For 4%’ Of Global Emissions
Healthcare In World’s Largest Economies ‘accounts For 4%’ Of Global Emissions
by Josh Gabbatiss
CO2 emissions from healthcare in the world’s largest economies account for about 5% of their national carbon…
File 20180124 72597 1twk9y1.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Biomining The Elements Of The Future
by Marcos Voutsinos, University of Melbourne
Biomining is the kind of technique promised by science fiction: a vast tank filled with microorganisms that leach metal…
What George Bush And The Neocons Can Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change
What George Bush And The Neocons Can Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change
by Ash Murphy
Be under no illusion, the world is losing the fight against climate change. The amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere…
Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
Deep Sea Carbon Reservoirs Once Superheated The Earth – Could It Happen Again?
by Lowell D. Stott
As concern grows over human-induced climate change, many scientists are looking back through Earth’s history to events…
Britain Is In The Middle Of A Drought – So How Come There's Flooding?
Britain Is In The Middle Of A Drought – So How Come There's Flooding?
by Hannah Cloke
Parts of the UK had more than a month’s rain in one day on Monday June 10. More rain on the following Tuesday,…
How To Feed A Growing Population Healthy Food Without Ruining The Planet
How To Feed A Growing Population Healthy Food Without Ruining The Planet
by Alessandro R Demaio, et al
If we’re serious about feeding the world’s growing population healthy food, and not ruining the planet, we need to get…
How To Get A High-renewable Electric Grid
How To Get A Highly-Renewable Electric Grid
by Richard Perez and Karl R. Rabago
The famous inventor Edwin Land said, “It’s not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.” He seemed…