What is this project all about?
This project investigates the social responses of the society to environmental stress in the context of climate variability for the last millennium in Cyprus. Human societies had a variable response to changes in climate either due to differences in socioeconomic systems, land use, and health systems. Many health issues in societies are sensitive to both social and urban/rural (built) environment as well as climatic and physical environmental parameter, making epidemiology (study of diseases) and their social parameters or proxies (health systems, death/famine, population, mobility, political organization, and land use) a suitable indicator for understanding social vulnerability. An epidemic is considered as one of the indicators of vulnerability for societies, which encompasses many factors, the combinations of which vary across time and space. Epidemics produce specific vulnerable places based on the interactions of populations with the physical, social, and built environments, and with infectious agents. Even though it may be difficult to trace all factors associated with vulnerability, some specific diseases that may be more determinant in understanding vulnerability are selected throughout the project (Fig.1).
Located in the Northern Levant, the island is still under investigation for the last millennium regarding the impacts of environmental stresses on the sanitary conditions, indirectly amplified or hindered by political systems, climatic and environmental variations during the late Medieval warm period (MWP), Little Ice Age (LIA) and current era (CE). Whether the spread of episodic diseases was the result of climate variability, local environmental stressors, and/or political factors, the magnitude of these factors needs to be assessed. Therefore, reconstructing several factors such as local aspects of climate, availability of land resources, demography, urban settlements and the political organization of the Cypriot society for specific periods (e.g. 13th to 14th; 18th to 19th; 20th century) will provide a comprehensive approach for the multifactorial indicators of the social vulnerability.
One of the main goals of this project is to reconstruct several proxies to understand such interaction between climate/environmental background and social vulnerability: On one hand, natural archives such as speleothems provide quantitative data on rainfall and temperature to complement existing dendrochronological and weather data for the last century. On the other hand, compiled public health archives of deaths, diseases, famine breakouts with past rural and urban landscape records for the last 900 years offer new indicators to analyze social responses to changes in climate and environmental backgrounds. By using the data available to us, we will be conducting a detailed reconstruction of each of these factors, climatic and environmental, demographic, political context, land use, and health, for the last millennium. This assessment will be used to construct scenarios of social vulnerability and disease breakouts during specific periods. The modeled scenarios will be verified by using an independent agent-based model (ABM) approach. ABM consists of a systematic analysis of the factors’ behavior in a specific space and time (e.g. epidemic, famine breakout, mobility, etc.) combined with a precise definition of the interactions at work between processes and parameters.
Reconstructing palaeoclimate quantitative data in water-limited environments
The island of Cyprus shows a contrast in landscapes: With high mountain ranges in the Troodos and Kyrenia receiving orographic-driven rainfall from northern and north-western winds to the Mesoaria plain that is characterized by dry climate (Fig. 2). Therefore, the island of Cyprus consists of a well-suited location to study the diversity of climate and environment as well as the effects of climate change on societies from the Medieval to the CE periods. While historical records indicated the existence of a ‘Little Ice Age’ on the island, with generally colder conditions and higher precipitation as well as floods, few natural records reconstructed this particular period during the last millennia. Only a few archaeological excavations in the Mesaoria and saline lake records, located near Larnaca at the southern coast of Cyprus, give few insights on that period. The dendrochronological studies in the Troodos Mountains were one of the first insights into the local palaeoclimate evolution for the last 250 years. So far, there have not been any natural archives that preserved the precipitation and temperature record on the island. Recently, a new potential natural archive, speleothems (Fig. 3), was discovered in various caves along the Kyrenia Mountains and the Akamas Peninsula. Speleothems are calcite (chemical formula: CaCO3) deposits where the growth is dependent on water availability, and are known to be linked to the amount of precipitation concentrated mainly during winter to spring. Exploring these speleothems in Cypriot caves as well as in ancient Qanats and tunnels will give us insights about winter and spring precipitation during the Medieval time, LIA, and CE periods, allowing us to extend the currently existing sparse and temporally limited climate dataset.
Focusing on the medical history of Cyprus amongst other social proxies
Two key factors contribute to the health of a human being from a climate perspective: Weather extremes (heat waves, winter cold, etc.) and increases in extreme weather events (floods, persistent wet and cold conditions, cyclones, storm surges, and droughts). Climate change, which acts through less direct mechanisms (environmental and social factors), would affect the transmission of many infectious diseases (e.g. water-, food- and vector-borne diseases) and regional food productivity (e.g. cereal grains). For vector-borne diseases, the distribution and the abundance of vector organisms, as well as intermediate hosts, are affected by various physical (temperature, precipitation, humidity) and biotic factors (vegetation, host species, predators, parasites), aiding the ecological niche for vectors to develop.
Human habitation and migration in Cyprus over the last millennia experienced changes in social, political, and spatial organizations during the Crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans, and British rule. For instance, the island experienced several periods of droughts, famine, and spread of diseases such as plague epidemics during the Crusaders rule in the mid-13th, in the 14th, and later in the 18thcentury. Indeed, in Cyprus, there are many references to plague, cholera, and fevers in historical records. In the CE warmth period, various diseases prevalent in the Near East stayed endemic to Cyprus. Some of the prevalent diseases such as malaria had an outbreak on the island due to elevated temperatures suitable for mosquito survival in their ecological niche. Indeed, during the early-20thc., Cyprus was considered to have one of the highest rates of malaria and carrier rates of thalassemia in the world. Archaeological excavations have revealed that thalassemia may have existed in Cyprus as early as 7,000 years ago, and malaria was a major natural selection factor that contributed to the establishment of high incidences of thalassemia, which is a sickle cell anemia and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency among modern Cypriots.
Several diseases were selected for the investigation of the project. First, infectious diseases such as, for example, Malaria and to a lesser extend Cholera, are more sensitive to heavy rainfall and wet environments, and/or high temperatures, especially because their vector-borne transmitters spend part of their lifecycle in this specific environment. Second, socio-economic and political dimensions are also associated with sanitary conditions, diseases, and epidemics, even with a verified effect of climate and physical environment. A disease such as Cholera is partly associated with degraded social and sanitary conditions in urban areas whereas TB is associated with poor living conditions. Plague transmission is, however, linked more to migrations/commercial networks on both local and regional scales, but also to the transformation of the built environment.
Therefore, understanding the dynamics of disease in history calls for a comprehensive study on several diseases and their social proxies, which appeared at different times throughout the history of Cyprus.
Investigation of diseases, epidemics, and their social proxies such as health systems, death/famine, political organization, and land use will be conducted for specific well-documented periods throughout the investigation of historical records (Fig. 4).
Modeling the scenarios of epidemics under various conditions & constraints
Reconstructing the dynamics of emergence or re-emergence of a set of diseases and famines in Cyprus in relation to famine breakouts during the CE warmth and earlier periods will help assess the vulnerability of the Cypriot society at different climatic and environmental backgrounds. Combining these epidemiological, environmental, and climatic as well as social data is a major methodological stake. This implies overcoming deterministic combinations and understanding causal links as tendency for a range of outcomes that interact in space and time. Therefore, modelling the weight of each factor (climatic, environmental, demographic, political, land use, and health) during specific periods of disease spread and famine breakouts will help disentangle the determinant factor for periods of social vulnerability in Cyprus. Constructed data for the factors during the well-documented end-LIA-CE period will serve as an analogue to project scenarios of disease breakout during earlier and less-well documented periods.
More is yet to come
Funded by the French Agency for Research (ANR) for 4 years, this project started officially in March 2021. The research team brings together palaeoenvironmentalists, ecologists and palaeoclimatologists, climate modelers, health geographers, and ABM modelers. Several universities are involved with the University of Rouen Normandy – UMR IDEES 6266 CNRS (main investigator) in this research program: the University of Nicosia, the Technological Institute of Karlsruhe and the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut (CREEMO).
A first field trip to Cyprus in July 2021 aimed to meet historians and visit libraries and health documentation centers to help evaluate the potential of historical archives in health, demography, weather data, etc. Caving prospection field trips were conducted as well in collaboration with the Cyprus geological department to visit caves and ancient tunnels. Another field trip in Autumn 2021 will be focused on caving prospection and sampling. A Ph.D. scholarship on Landscapes of disease: epidemiology of malaria & thalassemia in Cyprus is advertised until 1st October 2021 (extended deadline). More info here. Follow our news via @HighPasm and website for coming internship positions on palaeoclimate reconstruction from speleothems and database reconstruction for historical data.
This blog was edited by the editorial board.
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