Climate variability

Society’s positive response to past climate variability is an example for today


By Mikayla Mace Kelley, University Communications

March 24, 2021

Ruins of Late Antiquity villages in the limestone massif of Syria: rural settlements in the Roman and Sassanid Near East developed during the Little Ice Age of Late Antiquity.
Artur Rodziewicz

As the signs of man-made climate change become increasingly alarming, research into how past societies have responded to natural climate change becomes increasingly urgent. Researchers have often argued that climate change plunges communities into crisis and creates conditions that lead societies to collapse, but a growing body of research shows that the impacts of climate change on past populations are rarely so straightforward.

In a new paper published in Nature, researchers in archeology, geography, history and paleoclimatology present a framework for research on what they call “the history of climate and society”. The framework uses a series of questions to address common issues and biases in climate history studies and requires researchers to consult or include in their work researchers from various scientific, social, and humanistic disciplines.

“There is a long history of researchers focusing too much on making connections between climate variability and the collapse of civilizations. We want the field to move away from collapse and study the full spectrum of responding to climate variability, and that includes resilience and innovation. »Said co-author of the study and paleoclimatologist Kevin Anchukaitis, associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Geography, Development and Environment.

Lead author of the study, Dagomar Degroot, associate professor of environmental history at Georgetown University, said: “With this framework, we hope to help other researchers find more diverse links between climate and society, which we hope will lead to a more realistic understanding of the past. and a better guide for the future. “

Anchukaitis’ experience in using past climate data from tree rings, sediments, corals, and other indirect measures allowed the research team to more precisely combine the data with evidence from ancient documents. and artefacts from various case studies described in the article. Anchukaitis said the team itself is an example of what researchers would like to see more of in climate and archaeological research: equitable collaboration between different fields.

Using the newly developed framework, the researchers assembled case studies of societies that have adapted to two of the most frequently studied periods of climate change: the Little Ice Age of Late Antiquity in the 6th century and the Little Ice Age. from the 13th to the 19th century. Although these two periods imposed hardship on many communities, the case studies reveal that populations have adapted by exploiting new opportunities, relying on resilient energy systems, relying on resources provided by trade, responding effectively to disasters or migrating to new environments.

An example of this resilience can be seen in societal responses to climate change in the Eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule. Environmental reconstructions show an increase in winter precipitation beginning in the fifth century and continuing until the end of the Little Ice Age of Antiquity. Pollen data and archaeological studies reveal that cereal agriculture and pastoral activities have flourished due to increased rainfall, with many settlements increasing in density and area. Regional economic practices allowed goods to flow easily between communities, bringing the benefits of increased agricultural production to consumers. Meanwhile, the elite of society invested in market-oriented agriculture and funded the construction of dams and other infrastructure that enabled farmers to manage water more efficiently.

Although the climate changes experienced by past societies have been of less magnitude than the changes we are currently facing, case studies show that communities and societies have often adapted and persisted during periods of climate variability, a said Anchukaitis.

With a research framework that takes into account the heterogeneous effects of past climate change and the challenges of interpreting historical sources, the study authors hope that future research on the history of climate and society will identify examples of previously neglected resilience and will contribute to efforts to adapt to the unprecedented global warming facing societies today.

“Humans are not passive victims of climatic shocks,” Anchukaitis said. “How these events affect societies, economies and cultures depends on how we respond to them. How well prepared and flexible are we in the face of climate change? “


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