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Maya Civilization Faced Climate Change Similar to Modern Problem

April 3, 2012 – How the ancient Maya adapted to extreme changes in weather may help modern society respond to climate change, according to Georgetown geoscientist Timothy Beach.

“Any kind of climate changes that we can predict for the future are very much part of what geoscientists have studied in the past environment,” Beach says. “We use that long past environment to look at scenarios for the future.”

Two recently published papers in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Beach and his research team have found that periods of extreme rain, extreme drought and warming temperatures occurred during the time of the Maya civilization.

Adapting to ClimateS

“The Maya went through a similar climate change around 2,000 years ago,” Beach says.  “And they came back and then developed into the strongest civilization in the classic period after that.”

The adaptation included making changes to accommodate extreme sea level changes, he says.

“There were farmers about 2,500 years ago who were farming dry land, and then the sea level rose and inundated people’s farms,” the geoscientist explains.

Wet to Dry Lands

By about 500 or 600 A.D., Beach says the Maya had drained the farms and turned them into wetland farms, similar to paddy rice agriculture on a large scale.

But when a period of drought came to the area, the civilization collapsed again.

“This is interesting,” Beach says, “because this resilient and adaptable civilization still took this large-scale change and they adapted to some degree but then they collapsed as well.”

Change, Adapt or Suffer

Modern society has three choices in regard to climate change, Beach says.

“Either we do something about it or we simply adapt or we suffer,” he says. “A lot of people are suffering in the world. Places that are too poor are going to suffer.”

More economically healthy places in the world like the United States will likely build seawalls and allow some populations to move to higher ground, he says, and rebuild portions of cities away from flood-prone areas.

Beach, and his wife, George Mason University professor Sheryl Luzzadder Beach, and Georgetown adjunct professor Doug Howard, also just published a paper on catastrophic flooding in Iceland. The team identified the largest known flood to date in world history. 

This flood occurred in a period of warming not unlike today’s and provides a model for how melting glaciers are linked to catastrophic flooding that affects thousands of people in increasingly risky areas.

Carbon Dioxide Levels

Beach says geoscientists have found that about 13,000 years ago the Earth cooled very rapidly over only a few decades, a phenomenon that might repeat itself.

“And then around 12,000 years ago,” Beach says, “the earth warmed up by more than a couple of degrees in a very short period of time and then the sea level started rising dramatically. And so it had real effects on the Earth, in a large-scale way.”

He says today’s atmosphere is different in one important area – the amount of carbon dioxide.

“We’ve had about 25 different glacial periods and 25 different interglacial periods in the last couple of million years,” Beach says, “and we’ve never had those high levels of carbon dioxide.”

The professor thinks some Americans may not care about the earth heating up until a certain area of the country starts having droughts.

“When it hits the American Corn Belt, I guarantee you that Americans will take notice,” Beach says. “It takes a lot of water to grow corn.”