Question Your World: Can Climate Change Undo Civilizations? | Community Idea Stations

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Question Your World: Can Climate Change Undo Civilizations?

There are ruins from ancient civilizations scattered throughout the globe. Some of those civilizations fell to diseases and war, but some of them were undone because of a changing climate.  By studying climate change's impact on some of the most severe droughts on Earth, scientists are now showing increasing concern regarding the dire problems facing the Middle East. Now they're asking a big question: Can climate change undo civilizations? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

The ancient Maya of Central America, the Tang dynasty in China, and the Anasazi people of the south western United States are among some of the major civilizations that fell due to a change in the climate. These civilizations were hit hard by a series of cascading impacts, but at the fundamental level the biggest issue was the series of severe droughts. Prolonged periods without proper rain creates a shortage for two major needs of a civilization, water and subsequently the crops. We need crops for food and to feed our livestock as well. After all a growing civilization needs a growing supply of food. The slowing down or complete stop of seasonal rains impacts the crops in a region forcing the inhabitants to migrate elsewhere or suffer the dire consequences of famine. History has shown this to be the case among many of the previous large and growing civilizations on Earth. Droughts of course are not a thing of the past. That is the where ancient history and modern science come together to take a very serious look at what's going on in modern day Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

By studying samples from caves in the Fertile Crescent, two independent teams of scientists have published work highlighting some of the growing concerns over the impacts of climate change in the already stressed parts of the Middle East. Currently, the Middle East is home to the largest water deficit on our planet. The growing population's needs can't seem to be met with the amount of water in that region, and the prolonged droughts are not helping. As one of the most sever droughts in nearly a thousand years continues to drastically impact water shortages, this leaves millions of rural villagers with few options. They can either suffer and slowly die off or they can move to already dense urban areas. The influx of millions of poor villagers being added to the mix of an already stressed area with a water shortage only compounds the existing stresses and leads to increased tensions as everyone tries to find ways to survive in these harsh conditions.

The tree samples, stalagmite cores, and other methods of studying this region's climate history indicated that this current drought is unprecedented in nearly 1,000 years. Not only is this one of the most severe experiences for this region, but the data also showed that these conditions were two to three times more likely now than in the past. Our current influence on our climate has dire consequences on our relationship with the climate as well. The scientists conducting this study along a growing number of others around the globe say that by contributing heat trapping gases into the atmosphere we are only making these extreme events more likely. As global temperatures, population, and consumption needs all rise, scientists are encouraging nations, communities, neighborhoods, and individuals to all be involved in making decisions that will help make us more resilient to these extreme events.

In order to make more resilient communities citizens are being encouraged to engage in conversations with local planners, government officials, and community groups. Prolonged droughts certainly are having a devastating impact on the Middle East, but there are a myriad of other extreme weather events that can happen everywhere else. Flooding, severe heat waves, stronger storm surges, and various other extreme weather events can have long lasting impacts on an unprepared community. By studying the impacts of climate change on ancient civilizations, observing the current atmospheric stress due to the emissions of more heat trapping gases, understanding the long term climate history of regions, and seeing the profound impacts all of those factors on stressed regions scientists are urging for immediate action.

Yet another reminder that our decisions today will impact the communities, land, and waters of tomorrow.