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Geosciences Column: How climate change put a damper on the Maya civilisation

Geosciences Column: How climate change put a damper on the Maya civilisation

More than 4,000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge were being built, the Maya civilisation emerged in Central America. The indigenous group prospered for thousands of years until its fall in the 13th century (potentially due to severe drought). However, thousands of years before this collapse, severely soggy conditions lasting for many centuries likely inhibited the civilisation’s development, according to a recent study published in EGU’s open access journal Climate of the Past.

During their most productive era, often referred to as the Classic period (300-800 CE), Maya communities had established a complex civilisation, with a network of highly populated cities, large-scale infrastructure, a thriving agricultural system and an advanced understanding in mathematics and astronomy. However, in their early days, dating back to at least 2600 BCE, the Maya people were largely mobile hunter-gatherers, hunting, fishing and foraging across the lowlands.

Around 1000 BCE, some Maya communities had started to transition away from their nomadic lifestyles, and instead were moving towards establishing more sedentary societies, building small villages and relying more heavily on cultivating crops for their sustenance. However, experts suggest that agricultural practices didn’t gain momentum until 400 BCE, raising the question as to why Maya development was delayed for so many centuries.

By analysing two new palaeo-precipitation records, Kees Nooren, lead author of the study and a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues were able to gain insight into the environmental conditions during this pivotal time, and the impact that climate change could have had on the Maya society.

To determine the regional climate conditions during this period of time, the authors examined a beach ridge plain in the Mexican state of Tabasco, off the Gulf of Mexico, which contains a long-term record of ridge elevation changes for much of the late Holocene. Since precipitation has a large influence on the elevation of this beach ridge, this record is a good indicator of how much rainfall and flooding may have occurred during Maya settlement.

A large part of the central Maya lowlands (outlined with a black dashed line) is drained by the Usumacinta (Us.) River (a). During the Pre-Classic period this river was the main supplier of sand contributing to the formation of the extensive beach ridge plain at the Gulf of Mexico coast (b). Periods of low rainfall result in low river discharges and are associated with relatively elevated beach ridges. Taken from Nooren, K et al., 2018

Additionally, the researchers also assessed core samples taken from Lake Tuspan, a shallow body of water in northern Guatemala that is situated within the Central Maya Lowlands. Because the lake receives its water almost exclusively from a small section of the region (770 square kilometres), its sediment layers provide a good record of rainfall on a very local scale.

The image on p. 74 of the Dresden Codex depicts a torrential downpour probably associated with a destructive flood (Thompson, 1972). Taken from Nooren, K et al., 2018

The research team’s analysis suggested that, starting around 1000-850 BCE, the region shifted from a relatively dry climate, to a wetter environment. Such conditions would have made a farming in this region more difficult and less appealing compared to foraging and hunting. The researchers suggest that this change in climate could be one of the reasons why Maya agricultural development was at a standstill for such a long time.

The researchers also propose that this long-term climate trend could have been brought on by a shift of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a region near the equator where northeast and southeast winds intermingle and where most of the Earth’s rain makes landfall. The position of this zone can move naturally in response to Earth’s changes in insolation, and a northerly shift of the ITCZ could help account for some of the morphological changes the authors observed in the precipitation records.

After more than 450 years of excessive rainfall and large floods, the records then suggest that the region experienced drier conditions once again. By this time period, the Maya populations began to rapidly intensify their farming efforts and develop major cities, further suggesting that the wet conditions may have helped delay such efforts.

This is not the first time the Nooren and his colleagues have found evidence of major environmental influence on the Maya civilisation. For example, earlier research led by Nooren suggests that, in the 6th century, the El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico released massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere, triggering global climate change that likely contributed to a ‘dark age’ in Maya history for several decades. During this time, often referred to as the “Maya Hiatus,’ Maya societies experienced stagnation, increased warfare and political unrest. The research results were presented at the 2016 General Assembly and later published in Geology.

The results of these studies highlight how changes in our climate have greatly influenced communities and at times even shaped the course of societal history, both for better and for worse.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

References

Ebert, C. et al.: Regional response to drought during the formation and decline of Preclassic Maya societies. Quaternary Science Reviews 173:211-235, 2017

Nooren, K., Hoek, W. Z., Dermody, B. J., Galop, D., Metcalfe, S., Islebe, G., and Middelkoop, H.: Climate impact on the development of Pre-Classic Maya civilization. Clim. Past, 14, 1253-1273, 2018

Nooren, K.: Holocene evolution of the Tabasco delta – Mexico : impact of climate, volcanism and humans. Utrecht University Repository (Dissertation). 2017

Nooren, K. et al.: Explosive eruption of El Chichón volcano (Mexico) disrupted 6th century Maya civilization and contributed to global cooling, Geology, 45, 175-178, 2016

Press conference: Volcanoes, climate changes and droughts: civilisational resilience and collapse. European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2016

Caltech Climate Dynamics Group, Why does the ITCZ shift and how? 2016

Geosciences Column: The best spots to hunt for ancient ice cores

Geosciences Column: The best spots to hunt for ancient ice cores

Where in the world can you find some of Earth’s oldest ice? That is the question a team of French and US scientists aimed to answer. They recently identified spots in East Antarctica that likely have the right conditions to harbor ice that formed 1.5 million years ago. Scientists hope that obtaining and analysing an undisturbed sample of ice this old will give them clues about Earth’s ancient climate.

The team published their findings in The Cryosphere, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Why study ancient ice?

When snow falls and covers an ice sheet, it forms a fluffy airy layer of frozen mass. Over time, this snowy layer is compacted into solid ice under the weight of new snowfall, trapping pockets of air, like amber trapping prehistoric insects. For today’s scientists, these air bubbles, some sealed off thousands to millions of years ago, are snapshots of what the Earth’s atmosphere looked like at the time these pockets were locked in ice. Researchers can tap into these bubbles to understand how the proportion of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere have changed throughout time.

As of now, the oldest ice archive available to scientists only goes back 800,000 years, according to the authors of the study. While pretty ancient, this ice record missed out on some major climate events in Earth’s recent history. Scientists are particularly interested in studying the time between 1.2 million years ago and 900,000 years ago, a period scientifically referred to as the mid-Pleistocene transition.

In the last few million years leading up to this transition, the Earth’s climate would experience a period of variation, from cold glacial periods to warmer periods, every 40,000 years. However, after the mid-Pleistocene transition, Earth’s climate cycle lengthened in time, with each period of variation occurring every 100,000 years.  

Currently, there isn’t a scientific consensus on the origin of this transition or what factors were involved. By examining old ice samples and studying the composition of the atmospheric gases present throughout this transition, scientist hope to paint a clearer picture of this influential time. “Locating a future 1.5 [million-year]-old ice drill site was identified as one of the main goals of the ice-core community,” wrote the authors of the study.  

The quest for old ice

Finding ice older than 800,000 years is difficult since the Earth’s deepest, oldest ice are the most at risk of melting due to the planet’s internal heat. Places where an ice sheet’s layers are very thick have an even greater risk of melting.

Mesh, bedrock dataset (Fretwell et al., 2013; Young et al., 2017) and basal melt rate (Passalacqua et al., 2017) used for the simulation. Credit: O. Passalacqua et al. 2018.

“If the ice thickness is too high the old ice at the bottom is getting so warm by geothermal heating that it is melted away,” said Hubertus Fischer, a climate physics researcher from the University of Bern in Switzerland not involved in the study, in an earlier EGU press release.

Last summer, a team of researchers from Princeton University announced that they had unearthed an ice core that dates back 2.7 million years, but the sample’s layers of ice aren’t in chronological order, with ice less than 800,000 years old intermingling with the older frozen strata. Rather than presenting a seamless record of Earth’s climate history, the core can only offer ‘climate snapshots.’

Finding the best of the rest

The authors of the recent The Cryosphere study used a series of criteria to guide their search for sites that likely could produce ice cores that are both old and undisturbed. They established that potential sites should of course contain ice as old as 1.5 million years, but also have a high enough resolution for scientists to study frequent changes in Earth’s climate.

Additionally, the researchers established that sites should not be prone to folding or wrinkling, as these kinds of disturbances can interfere with the order of ice layers.

Lastly, they noted that the bedrock on which the ice sheet sits should be higher than any nearby subglacial lakes, since the lake water could increase the risk of ice melt.

Magenta boxes A, B and C correspond to areas that could be considered as our best oldest-ice targets. Colored points locate possible drill sites. Credit: O. Passalacqua et al. 2018.

 

Using these criteria, the researchers evaluated one region of East Antarctica, the Dome C summit, which scientists in the past have considered a good candidate site for finding old ice. They ran three-dimensional ice flow simulations to locate parts of the region that are the most likely to contain ancient ice, based on their established parameters.

By narrowing down the list of eligible sites, the researchers were able to pinpoint regions just a few square kilometres in size where intact 1.5 million-year-old ice are very likely to be found, according to their models. Their results revealed that some promising areas are situated a little less than 40 kilometres southwest of the Dome C summit.

The researchers hope their new findings will bring scientists one step closer towards finding Earth’s ancient ice.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

Imaggeo on Mondays: Arid lands and ancient lakes

Palaeoclimatologist Annett Junginger takes us to one of the hottest and driest places on Earth in this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays…

“Suguta Showers” by Annett Junginger, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

“Suguta Showers” by Annett Junginger, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

The picture was taken in 2010 during the third in six expeditions to the remote Suguta Valley in the northern Kenya Rift. This unbelievably beautiful place is located just south of Lake Turkana and is one of the hottest and driest places in equatorial Africa. Temperatures often reach 50°C in the shade, but there is no shade. Evaporation is so high that occasional rainfall over the valley escarpments only fills the rivers temporarily, and water often evaporates from the valley slopes faster than it can reach the deepest part of the valley to form a lake. Only during the rainy seasons there is enough water to allow the development of the small Lake Logipi (5 x 10 km across and approximately 3 m deep), which is a key destination for millions of Flamingos.

Due to the remoteness and hostile conditions of the valley, it is largely uninhabited, allowing the perfect preservation of all kinds of geological information. To make the most of this preservation, the Suguta Valley Project has been set up to investigate the valley’s late Cenozoic structural development and lacustrine deposits. The aim is to better understand environmental changes over the course of the region’s volcano-tectonic evolution and the climate fluctuations of the last five million years.

From left to right first row: Lake Logipi during the rainy season; a palaeo-shoreline 300 m above Lake Logipi approximately 10,000 years old (credit: M. Trauth); Lacustrine sediments of the same age. From left to right second row: Flamingos (pink dots) along the shore of Lake Logipi; Mid-Pleistocene lacustrine sediments; Erosion of Holocene lacustrine sediments. From left to right third row: Lake Eight, a maar lake in the southern part of the valley; Sand dunes in the foreground and palaeo-shorelines on the Namarunu volcano in the back; palaeo-shorelines on a small crater in the centre of the valley approximately 5,000 years old. (Credit: Annett Junginger)

From left to right first row: Lake Logipi during the rainy season; a palaeo-shoreline 300 m above Lake Logipi approximately 10,000 years old (credit: M. Trauth); Lacustrine sediments of the same age. From left to right second row: Flamingos (pink dots) along the shore of Lake Logipi; Mid-Pleistocene lacustrine sediments; Erosion of Holocene lacustrine sediments. From left to right third row: Lake Eight, a maar lake in the southern part of the valley; Sand dunes in the foreground and palaeo-shorelines on the Namarunu volcano in the back; palaeo-shorelines on a small crater in the centre of the valley approximately 5,000 years old. (Credit: Annett Junginger)

It may sounds strange that lacustrine deposits can be found here, when the valley experiences such hot and dry conditions. But this is case! Palaeo-shorelines and up to 40 m thick lacustrine sediments are the remains of the huge palaeo-Lake Suguta, 300 m deep and 2,200 km2 large, that existed between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago – from a geological perspective, that’s not long ago at all! We also found lacustrine deposits up to 1 million years old that explain multiple humid periods in the past. The investigation of these palaeo-climate records may help to provide new insights into (1) the spatial and temporal synchronicity of the Early Holocene humid period in East Africa, (2) the role of the tropics in glacial-interglacial transitions during the Pleistocene, and (3) the links between climate changes and human evolution.

By Annett Junginger, Institute for Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Potsdam

Reference:

Junginger, A., Trauth, M.H., Hydrological constraints of paleo-Lake Suguta in the Northern Kenya Rift during the African Humid Period (15–5 ka BP), Glob. Planet. Change (2013)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. A new and improved Imaggeo site will be launching soon, so you will be able to peruse an even better database of visually stunning geoscience images. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.