Did a drought contribute to the decline of the Maya civilization?

By | February 27, 2012

I came across an article titled “Global warming, drought likely lead to decline of Mayan civilization.” Now, word choice error aside (pretty sure the ancient civilization isn’t still declining) the title caught my attention, and I promptly saved it for later reading.

The article talks about the possibility of a drought/dry spell being the possible final nail in the Maya coffin (not global warming per se).

Let’s back up here a minute and look at global warming, the phrase. Global warming is:

an increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, especially a sustained increase sufficient to cause climatic change.

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

but, no, actually, it’s linked specifically to the greenhouse effect:

an increase in the average temperature worldwide believed to be caused by the greenhouse effect

(Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged)

but wait–it’s a general warming and a warming caused by the greenhouse effect?

An increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere, especially a sustained increase great enough to cause changes in the global climate. The Earth has experienced numerous episodes of global warming through its history, and currently appears to be undergoing such warming. The present warming is generally attributed to an increase in the greenhouse effect , brought about by increased levels of greenhouse gases, largely due to the effects of human industry and agriculture. Expected long-term effects of current global warming are rising sea levels, flooding, melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, fluctuations in temperature and precipitation, more frequent and stronger El Niños and La Niñas, drought, heat waves, and forest fires.

(The American Heritage Science Dictionary)

I’m going to take a moment here and say that I have no doubt the planet is getting more and more polluted, and that this pollution and over-farming and all the other fun things we humans do to destroy the place is affecting every aspect of life on Earth–including the climate. I’m not disputing that. (And I’m not here to argue about whether or not global warming is real. Though I will sit back and read such an argument, with a bucket of popcorn and possibly some wine.) I’m just a little amused by the differing definitions. (But hey, I have a short attention span and I’m easily entertained.)

Ahem. Anyway. To the article. Unfortunately, I was a little distracted by the blatant abuse of apostrophes (I’m sorry, it’s the editor in me), so I went in search of the original article–the one published in Science. Also unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, and I’m far too cheap to shell out the $15 required to read the thing.

So I exercised my Google-fu and went in search of other articles.

In the February 24 issue of Science is a study by researchers Martin Medina-Elizalde (Yucatan Center for Scientific Research) and Eelco Rohling (University of Southampton) that presents the possibility of decreased rainfall leading to the final demise of the once great civilization.

Neat, right? I thought so.

According to a LiveScience article,

…scientists have long drawn connections between the slow decline of the ancient Maya, which took about two centuries, “to climate change, and especially to drought,” said researcher Martin Medina-Elizalde…

(“Dry Spells Caused Mayan Civilization Fall,” LiveScience via MSNBC.com)

Truthfully, I have no idea if scientists do make those connections or not, since I’m not a Maya scholar. But it’s interesting nonetheless.

This particular study seems to be rooted in those long-drawn connections, and the researchers set out to determine how much rainfall there was during the final years of Maya society. So they combed through the most detailed records of climate change from around the time of the civilization’s collapse. (Which sounds like it was chock-full of tedious fun.)

After all that combing, they found a slight reduction in rainfall between the height and collapse of the Maya. It wasn’t a lot–only between 25 and 40 percent, but the study claims that this reduction was enough to cause a drought, thanks to a lower amount of summer storms.

I don’t know…this doesn’t seem like a death sentence, does it? But! The smaller amounts of rainfall may not have been able to replace all that evaporated water. (After all, it gets pretty hot in Mexico, and, you know, water evaporates when it’s hot.) Also, the Maya may have relied too much on their constant (and continuous) rainfall amounts and farmed the shit out of their lands, which clearly turned out to be a bad idea.

And voila, end of advanced civilization. (Possibly through social unrest/rebellion and/or disease, thanks to a lack of food, thanks to all that un-replaced evaporated water.) Though they did leave behind that calendar for us to find. (Thanks, guys.)

The scientists, however, are making sure to emphasize that they’re not saying that climate change was actually what ended the Maya. Just that the reduction in rainfall may have had a hand in The End. Which, you know, is kinda indirectly saying that climate change ended the Maya.

(N.B. This study is not the first of its kind. A study was done in 2003 that also presents a long dry spell being the end of the Maya. There was also a study published in 2008 that suggests ecosystems and resources were destroyed or damaged by climate change; though instead of climate data, this study looked at garbage pits. GARBAGE PITS, you guys.)

Now, I’ve read that we’re currently entering a water crisis ourselves. You know, lack of fresh water supplies and all that. Do you think a water crisis could lead to a similar collapse of modern society, if climate change/water shortage did in fact end the Maya?

References:

LiveScience article: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46514698#

USA Today article (2008 study): http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/2008-11-08-mayan-decline_N.htm

Original article: http://www.thestatecolumn.com/articles/2012/02/26/global-warming-drought-likely-lead-to-decline-of-mayan-civilization/

 

 

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