Jeff Masters: Nations that Collapsed because of Drought

[ Will the American Southwest be the next civilization to collapse?  Lynn Ingram, a professor at U.C. Berkeley discusses this in her 2013 book: The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow.

Since 2000, California has had the worst drought in 1,200 years.   On top of that, massive and fast ugly suburban sprawl will hasten collapse. I was horrified that the beautiful town of Indio, an oasis of date trees and the best date shakes in the USA, is gone!  I was last there over 35 years ago and and looked forward to buying my husband a delicious date shake.  But Indio is now part of the endless, and hideous, Los Angeles suburban strip mall sprawl. The Oakland museum has a very interesting exhibit that shows how the human population explosion in the Coachella valley is ruining the five different ecosystems that converge there, and draining the aquifer so quickly for golf courses, agriculture, and sprawl consumption, that the water will run dry in less than 30 years.  What a horror it was to drive through this mass extinction of plants, animals, amphibians, and reptiles and poisoning of the land, air and water for millennia in the future.  Of course this kind of destruction is happening everywhere, I just came across this article in National Geographic about the extinctions driven by development in the San Antonio / Austin region which is expected to grow to 9.4 million people and sprawl across 125 miles. Alice Friedemann ]

Jeff Masters.  March 21, 2016. Ten Civilizations or Nations That Collapsed From Drought.  wunderground

Drought is the great enemy of human civilization. Drought deprives us of the two things necessary to sustain life–food and water. When the rains stop and the soil dries up, cities die and civilizations collapse, as people abandon lands no longer able to supply them with the food and water they need to live. While the fall of a great empire is usually due to a complex set of causes, drought has often been identified as the primary culprit or a significant contributing factor in a surprising number of such collapses. Drought experts Justin Sheffield and Eric Wood of Princeton, in their 2011 book, Drought, identify more than ten civilizations, cultures and nations that probably collapsed, in part, because of drought. As we mark World Water Day on March 22, we should not grow overconfident that our current global civilization is immune from our old nemesis–particularly in light of the fact that a hotter climate due to global warming will make droughts more intense and impacts more severe. So, presented here is a “top ten” list of drought’s great power over some of the mightiest civilizations in world history–presented chronologically.

Collapse #1. The Akkadian Empire in Syria, 2334 BC – 2193 BC. In Mesopotamia 4200 years ago, the great Akkadian Empire united all the indigenous Akkadian-speaking Semites and the Sumerian speakers, and controlled Mesopotamia, the Levant, and parts of Iran, sending military expeditions as far south as present-day Oman. In a 2000 article published in Geology, “Climate change and the collapse of the Akkadian empire: Evidence from the deep sea”, a team of researchers led by Heidi Cullen studied deposits of continental dust blown into the Gulf of Oman in the late 1990s. They discovered a large increase in dust 4200 years ago that likely coincided with a 100-year drought that brought a 30% decline in precipitation to Syria. The drought, called the 4.2 kiloyear event, is thought to have been caused by cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. The 4.2 kiloyear event has also been linked to the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt (see below). The paper concluded, “Geochemical correlation of volcanic ash shards between the archeological site and marine sediment record establishes a direct temporal link between Mesopotamian aridification and social collapse, implicating a sudden shift to more arid conditions as a key factor contributing to the collapse of the Akkadian empire.”

Collapse #2. The Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, 4200 years ago. The same drought that brought down the Akkadian empire in Syria severely shrank the normal floods on the Nile River in ancient Egypt. Without regular floods to fertilize the fields, poor harvests led to reduced tax income and insufficient funds to finance the pharaoh’s government, hastening the collapse of Egypt’s pyramid-building Old Kingdom. An inscription on the tomb of Ankhtifi during the collapse describes the pitiful state of the country when famine stalked the land: “the whole country has become like locusts going in search of food…”

Collapse #3. The Late Bronze Age (LBA) civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean. About 3200 years ago, the Eastern Mediterranean hosted some of the world’s most advanced civilizations. The Mycenaean culture was flourishing in Greece and Crete. The chariot-riding Hittites had carved out a vast empire encompassing a large part of Asa Minor and the Middle East. In Egypt, the New Kingdom was at its height. However, around 1200 BC, these Eastern Mediterranean civilizations declined or collapsed. According to a 2013 study in PLOS, studying grains of fossilized pollen shows that this collapse coincided with the onset of a 300-year drought event. This climate shift caused crop failures and famine, which “precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.”

Collapse #4. The Maya civilization of 250-900 AD in Mexico. Severe drought killed millions of Maya people due to famine and lack of water, and initiated a cascade of internal collapses that destroyed their civilization at the peak of their cultural development, between 750 – 900 AD. Haug, G.H. et al., in their 2003 paper in Science, “Climate and the collapse of Maya civilization,” documented substantial multi-year droughts coinciding with the collapse of the Maya civilization.

Collapse #5. The Tang Dynasty in China, 700-907 AD. At the same time as the Mayan collapse, China was also experiencing the collapse of its ruling empire, the Tang Dynasty. Dynastic changes in China often occurred because of popular uprisings during crop failure and famine associated with drought. The Tang dynasty–a golden age of literature and art in Chinese civilization–began to weaken in the eighth century, and it fully collapsed in 907 AD. Sediments from Lake Huguang Maar in China dated to the time of the collapse of the Tang Dynasty indicate a sudden and sustained decline in summertime monsoon rainfall. Agriculture in China depends upon the summer monsoon, which supplies about 70% of the year’s rain in just a few months. A 2007 article in Nature by Yancheva et al. speculated that “migrations in the tropical rain belt could have contributed to the simultaneous declines of both the Tang dynasty in China and the Classic Maya in Central America.”

Collapse 6. The Tiwanaku Empire of Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca region, 300 – 1000 AD. The Tiwanaku Empire was one of the most important South American civilizations prior to the Inca Empire. After dominating the region for 500 years, the Tiwanaku Empire ended abruptly between 1000 – 1100 AD, following a drying of the region, as measured by ice accumulation in the Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peru. Sediment cores from nearby Lake Titicaca document a 10-meter drop in lake level at this time.

Collapse 7. The Ancestral Puebloan Anasazi culture in the Southwest U.S. in the 11th-12th centuries AD. Beginning in 1150 AD, North America experienced a 300-year drought called the Great Drought. This drought has often been cited as a primary cause of the collapse of the ancestral Puebloan (formally called Anasazi) civilization in the Southwest U.S., and abandonment of places like the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. The Mississippian culture, a mound-building Native American civilization that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States, also collapsed at this time.

Collapse #8. The Khmer Empire based in Angkor, Cambodia, 802-1431 AD. The Khmer Empire ruled Southeast Asia for over 600 years, but was done in by a series of intense decades-long droughts interspersed with intense monsoons in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that, in combination with other factors, contributed to the empire’s demise. The climatic evidence comes from a seven-and-a-half century reconstruction from tropical southern Vietnamese tree rings presented in a 2010 study by Buckley et al., “Climate as a contributing factor in the demise of Angkor, Cambodia”. They wrote: “The Angkor droughts were of a duration and severity that would have impacted the sprawling city’s water supply and agricultural productivity, while high-magnitude monsoon years damaged its water control infrastructure.”

Collapse #9. The Ming Dynasty in China, 1368-1644 AD. China’s Ming Dynasty–one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history–collapsed at a time when the most severe drought in the region in over 4000 years was occurring, according to sediments from Lake Huguang Maar analyzed in a 2007 article in Nature by Yancheva et al. Drought experts Justin Sheffield and Eric Wood of Princeton, in their 2011 book, Drought, speculated that a weakened summer monsoon driven by warm El Niño conditions in the Eastern Pacific was responsible for the intense drought, which led to widespread famine. An inscription found carved on a wall of Dayu Cave in the Qinling Mountains of Central China dated July 10, 1596, during the 24th year of the MIng Dynasty’s Emperor Wanli, said: Mountains are crying due to drought.”

Collapse #10. Modern Syria. Syria’s devastating civil war that began in March 2011 has killed over 300,000 people, displaced at least 7.6 million, and created an additional 4.2 million refugees. While the causes of the war are complex, a key contributing factor was the nation’s devastating drought that began in 1998. The drought brought Syria’s most severe set of crop failures in recorded history, which forced millions of people to migrate from rural areas into cities, where conflict erupted. This drought was almost certainly Syria’s worst in the past 500 years (98% chance), and likely the worst for at least the past 900 years (89% chance), according to a 2016 tree ring study by Cook et al., “Spatiotemporal drought variability in the Mediterranean over the last 900 years.” Human-caused emissions greenhouse gases were “a key attributable factor” in the drying up of wintertime precipitation in the Mediterranean region, including Syria, in recent decades, as discussed in a NOAA press release that accompanied a 2011 paper by Hoerling et al., On the Increased Frequency of Mediterranean Drought. A 2016 paper by drought expert Colin Kelley showed that the influence of human greenhouse gas emissions had made recent drought in the region 2 – 3 times more likely. Wunderground’s climate change blogger, Dr. Ricky Rood, has his take on the current drought in Syria in his March 21 post, Ineffective Resolution: Middle East and Climate Change.

Buckley, B.M. et al., 2010, “Climate as a contributing factor in the demise of Angkor, Cambodia,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107, 6748–6752 (2010).

Cook, B.I. et al., 2016, “Spatiotemporal drought variability in the Mediterranean over the last 900 years,” JGR Atmospheres, DOI: 10.1002/2015JD023929

Cullen, H.M., and P.B. deMenocal, 2000, North Atlantic Influence on TIgris-Euphrates Streamflow, International Journal of Climatology, 20: 853-863.

Cullen et al., 2000, “Climate change and the collapse of the Akkadian empire: Evidence from the deep sea,” Geology 28, 379 (2000).

deMenocal, P.B., 2001, “Cultural responses to climate change during the late Holocene,” Science 292, 667–673 (2001).

Gleick, P., 2014, Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria, Weather, Climate, and Society

Haug, G.H. et al., 2003, “Climate and the collapse of Maya civilization,” Science 299, 1731–1735 (2003).

Hoerling, Martin, Jon Eischeid, Judith Perlwitz, Xiaowei Quan, Tao Zhang, Philip Pegion, 2012, On the Increased Frequency of Mediterranean Drought, J. Climate, 25, 2146–2161, doi:

Kaniewski, D. et al., 2012, Drought is a recurring challenge in the Middle East, PNAS 109:10, 3862–3867, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1116304109

Kaniewski, D. et al., 2013, “Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis,” PLOS one, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071004

Kelley, C.P. et al., 2016, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” PNAS vol. 112 no. 11, 3241–3246, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421533112

Ortloff, C.R. and A.L. Kolata, 1992, “Climate and Collapse: Agro-Ecological Perspectives on the Decline of the Tiwanaku State,” J. of Achaelogical Science 1993, <b<20< b=””> 195-221.

Wendel, JoAnna, 2015, Chinese Cave Inscriptions Tell Woeful Tale of Drought,” EOS, 1 October 2015.

Yancheva, G. et al., 2007, “Influence of the intertropical convergence zone on the East Asian monsoon,” Nature 445, 74–77 (2007).

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