Positive Societal Response to Past Climate Variability Sets an Example for Today
Humans' response to climate variability is not all doom and gloom, and research should reflect this reality, says a team of climate scientists, historians and other scholars. People have found ways to thrive and innovate even under climatic stresses.

By Mikayla Mace Kelley, University Communications
March 24, 2021

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Ruins in Syria
Ruins of late antique villages in the Limestone Massif in Syria: rural settlements in the Roman and Sassanian Near East expanded during the Late Antique Little Ice Age. Artur Rodziewicz

As signs of human-caused climate change become increasingly alarming, research on the ways in which past societies responded to natural climate change is becoming more urgent. Scholars have often argued that climatic changes plunge communities into crisis and create 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, scholars in archaeology, geography, history and paleoclimatology present a framework for research on what they term "the history of climate and society." The framework uses a series of questions to address common problems and biases in climate history studies and requires researchers to consult or include in their work scholars from a variety of scientific, social scientific and humanistic disciplines.

"There's a long history of researchers being overly focused on drawing connections between climate variability and the collapse of civilizations. We want the field to move away from collapse and study the full spectrum of response to climate variability, and that includes resilience and innovation," said study co-author and paleoclimatologist Kevin Anchukaitis, an associate professor in the University of Arizona School of Geography, Development and Environment.

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

Anchukaitis' background in using past climate data from tree rings, sediments, corals and other proxy measurements allowed the research team to more accurately combine data with evidence from ancient documents and artifacts from various case studies described in the paper. Anchukaitis said the team itself is an example of what the researchers would like to see more in climate and archaeological research: equitable collaboration between different fields.

Using the newly developed framework, the researchers put together case studies of societies that adapted to two of the most frequently studied periods of climate change: The Late Antique Little Ice Age of the sixth century and the Little Ice Age of the 13th to 19th centuries. Although both of these periods imposed hardships on many communities, the case studies reveal that populations adapted by exploiting new opportunities, relying on resilient energy systems, drawing on resources provided by trade, responding effectively to disaster or migrating to new environments.

One example of this resilience can be seen in societal responses to climate change in the Eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule. Environmental reconstructions  show increased winter precipitation beginning in the fifth century and continuing through the Late Antique Little Ice Age. Pollen data and archaeological surveys reveal that cereal agriculture and pastoral activities thrived as a result of the increased rainfall, with many settlements increasing in density and area. Regional economic practices allowed goods to circulate between communities easily, bringing the benefits of increased agricultural production to consumers. Meanwhile, the society's elite invested in market-oriented agriculture and financed the construction of dams and other infrastructure that allowed farmers to manage water more effectively.

Although the changes in climate faced by past societies were smaller in magnitude than the changes we now face, case studies show that communities and societies often adapted and persisted through periods of climatic variability, Anchukaitis said.

With a research framework that accounts for the heterogeneous effects of past climate changes and the challenges of interpreting historical sources, the study authors hope that future research on the history of climate and society will identify previously overlooked examples of resilience, and aid efforts to adapt to the unprecedented global warming that faces societies today.

"Humans are not passive victims of climate shocks," Anchukaitis said. "How these events ripple through societies, economies and cultures depends on how we respond to it. How well prepared and flexible are we in face of climate change?"

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Media contact(s)

Daniel Stolte

Science Writer, University Communications

Researcher contact(s)

Kevin Anchukaitis

School of Geography, Development and Environment