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Climate Change and Collapse

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 19, 2009 1:49 PM


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The evidence for civilization-killing droughts keeps piling up. Well...sort of. All the worldwide headlines on this latest story about Angkor, the ancient Cambodian city, mention drought. And for good reason. As the AP reports, new tree ring evidence by scientists show

that Southeast Asia was hit by a severe and prolonged drought from 1415 until 1439, coinciding with the period during which many archeologists believe Angkor collapsed.

But as this previous research published in 2007 suggests, population pressure, deforestation and soil erosion had already started to stress the sprawling settlement. Then there is the 1431 invasion of Angkor from Siam (now Thailand) to keep in mind. Put it all together and you have, as one scientist interviewed in the current AP story explains, a knockout blow delivered by climate change:

We have these droughts occurring on top of preexisting pressures...It's like pouring petrol on a fire. It makes social and economic pressures that may have been endurable disastrous.

American archaeologists studying the social chaos and eventual depopulation of the Four Corners region in the Southwest during the 13th century are often reluctant to put too much emphasis on environmental factors--despite evidence of similar mega-droughts. But there seems to be an emerging pattern to the rise and fall of the Anasazi and Angkor, and other famous examples, such as the ancient Maya, that is worth paying attention to today, given our current ecological and climate challenges.

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