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Maya may have intensified drought by clearing forests

The Tikal temple represents one of the pinnacles of Maya civilization. Photo courtesy Raymond Ostertag via Wikipedia and the Creative Commons.

Clear-cutting may have reduced rainfall by as much as 15 percent

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The decline of Maya civilization has often been linked with drought by climate researchers and archaeologists. Now, a new study suggests the Maya may have hastened their own demise by clearing forests.

Based on climate modeling, Mayan land-clearing may have reduced rainfall by as much as 15 percent in the heavily logged Yucatan Peninsula, and by up to 5 percent in other parts of southern Mexico. Overall, the researchers said as much as 60 percent of the regional drying may have been caused by deforestation.

“We’re not saying deforestation explains the entire drought, but it does explain a substantial portion of the overall drying that is thought to have occurred,” said the study’s lead author Benjamin Cook, a climate modeler at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

As crops like corn replace a forest’s dark canopy, more sunlight bounces back into space, said Cook. With the ground absorbing less energy from the sun, less water evaporates from the surface, releasing less moisture into the air to form rain-making clouds.

“You basically slow things down—the ability to form clouds and precipitation,” Cook said.

The ancient Maya flourished for more than six centuries, with more than a hundred city-states scattered across what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America. More than 19 million people were scattered across the Maya empire at its height, between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900. Then, in A.D. 695, the collapse of several cities in present day Guatemala marked the start of the Classic Maya’s slow decline.

Using population records and other data, the study authors reconstructed the progressive loss of rainforest across their territory as the civilization grew. The Maya cleared the forests to grow corn and other crops, but they also needed the trees for cooking large amounts of lime plaster used in constructing their elaborate cities.

Thomas Sever, an archeologist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and a co-author of a 2010 deforestation study, said that it would have taken 20 trees to produce a single square meter of cityscape.

“When you look at these cities and see all the lime and lime plaster, you understand why they needed to cut down the trees to keep their society going,” he said.

The Maya also lacked the technology to tap the groundwater several hundred feet beneath them. Their reservoirs and canals were able to store and distribute water when rain plentiful, but when the rain failed, they had nowhere to turn.

“By the time of the collapse, every square mile of soil had been turned over,” said Sever.

Archeologists attribute a variety of factors to the collapse of the Classic Maya, whose ancestors are still living today in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. In addition to a drying climate in several regions, the city-states struggled with overpopulation, changing trade routes, war and peasant revolts.

Scientists know from studying climate records held in cave formations and lake sediments that the Maya suffered through a series of droughts yet they continue to debate their severity.

In a paper earlier this year in Science, researchers Martín Medina-Elizalde and Eelco Rohling of Mexico’s Yucatan Center for Scientific Research found that annual rainfall may have fallen as little as 25 percent during the Maya’s decline, from about A.D. 800 to A.D. 950. Most of the reduction in rainfall, however, may have occurred during the summer growing season when rain would have been most needed for cultivation and replenishing freshwater storage systems, they added.

The Maya also lacked the technology to tap the groundwater several hundred feet beneath them. Their reservoirs and canals were able to store and distribute water when rain plentiful, but when the rain failed, they had nowhere to turn. “By the time of the collapse, every square mile of soil had been turned over,” said Sever.

Today, many of the Maya’s abandoned cities are overgrown with jungle, especially on the Yucatan peninsula. Satellite images, however, show that deforestation is happening rapidly elsewhere, including in other regions the Maya once occupied. The study may offer a warning about the consequences: “There’s a tremendous amount of change going on in Guatemala,” said Oglesby. “They may be that much more vulnerable to a severe drought.”

Other authors of the study are: Kevin Anchukaitis, Lamont-Doherty; Jed Kaplan, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland; Michael Puma, NASA GISS; Max Kelley, NASA GISS and Denis Gueyffier, ONERA, the French Aerospace Lab.

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