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Quantification of drought during the collapse of the classic Maya civilization

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Science  03 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6401, pp. 498-501
DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9871

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Falling from a fall in rainfall

How much did rainfall have to decrease to trigger the collapse of Lowland Classic Maya civilization during the Terminal Classic Period? This collapse is a well-cited example of how past climate change—in this case, drought—can disrupt a population. Evans et al. measured the isotopic composition of water in Lake Chichancanab, Mexico, to quantify how much precipitation decreased during that period. Annual rainfall must have fallen by around 50% on average and by up to 70% during peak drought conditions.

Science, this issue p. 498

Abstract

The demise of Lowland Classic Maya civilization during the Terminal Classic Period (~800 to 1000 CE) is a well-cited example of how past climate may have affected ancient societies. Attempts to estimate the magnitude of hydrologic change, however, have met with equivocal success because of the qualitative and indirect nature of available climate proxy data. We reconstructed the past isotopic composition (δ18O, δD, 17O-excess, and d-excess) of water in Lake Chichancanab, Mexico, using a technique that involves isotopic analysis of the structurally bound water in sedimentary gypsum, which was deposited under drought conditions. The triple oxygen and hydrogen isotope data provide a direct measure of past changes in lake hydrology. We modeled the data and conclude that annual precipitation decreased between 41 and 54% (with intervals of up to 70% rainfall reduction during peak drought conditions) and that relative humidity declined by 2 to 7% compared to present-day conditions.

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