Drought is a normal recurring feature of the climate in most parts of the world. It doesn’t get the attention of a tornado, hurricane or flood. Instead, it’s a slower and less obvious, a much quieter disaster creeping up on us unawares.
Climate change is currently warming many regions, overall warmer temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts.
We can prepare for some climate change consequences with public education, water conservation programs, limiting pumping from our freshwater aquifers to recharge rates and putting in place early warning systems for extreme heat events.
Unfortunately some things cannot be prepared for…like the pervasiveness and persistence of a hundred year drought.
The collapse of the world’s earliest known empire was because of drought.
The Akkadians of Mesopotamia forged the world's first empire more than 4,300 years ago. The Akkad’s seized control of cities along the Euphrates River and swept up onto the plains to the north –
in a short period of time their empire stretched 800 miles, all the way from the Persian Gulf to the headwaters of the Euphrates, through what is now Iraq, Syria and parts of southern Turkey.
Tell Leilan was a small village founded by some of the world’s first farmers. It’s located in present day Syria and has existed for over 8,000 years. The Akkad’s conquered Tell Leilan around 2300 B.C. and the area became the breadbasket for the Akkadian empire.
After only a hundred years the Akkadian empire started to collapse.
In 1978, Harvey Weiss, a Yale archaeologist, began excavating the city of Tell Leilan. Everywhere Weiss dug he encountered a layer of dirt that contained no signs of human habitation. This dirt layer corresponded to the years 2200 to 1900 B.C. - the time of Akkad’s fall.
The Curse of Akkad
For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel's worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel's worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.
The events described in "The Curse of Akkad" were always thought to be fictional. But the evidence Weiss uncovered at Tell Leilan (along with elevated dust deposits in sea-cores collected off Oman) suggest that localized climate change - in Tell Leilan’s case a three hundred year drought, desertification, was the major cause.
"Since this is probably the first abrupt climate change in recorded history that caused major social upheaval. It raises some interesting questions about how volatile climate conditions can be and how well civilizations can adapt to abrupt crop failures." Dr. Harvey Weiss, Yale University archeologist
Perhaps the most notable empire decline due to drought, or altered precipitation patterns, was the Maya empire. At the peak of their glory the Maya ranged from Mexico's Yucatán peninsula to Honduras. Some 60 Maya cities - each home to upwards of 70,000 people - sprang up across much of modern day Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.
"The early Classic Maya period was unusually wet, wetter than the previous thousand years… Mayan systems were founded on those [high] rainfall patterns. They could not support themselves when patterns changed." Douglas Kennett, an environmental anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University.
During the wettest centuries, from 440 to 660, Maya civilization flourished.
The ‘Big Dry’
Then precipitation patterns changed, the following centuries, to roughly 1000 A.D., did not treat the Mayas so kindly, they suffered repeatedly from drought, oftentimes extreme drought lasting a decade and more.
Between 1020 and 1100 the region suffered the longest dry spell in many millennia. The Maya’s suffered crop failure after failure, famine, death and eventually mass migration.
“Yucatecan lake sediment cores ... provide unambiguous evidence for a severe 200-year drought from AD 800 to 1000 ... the most severe in the last 7,000 years ... precisely at the time of the Maya Collapse.” Richardson Gill, The Great Maya Droughts
After 200 years, in just an eye-blink of time, famine and drought held sway… and most people walked away leaving behind a ghost empire.
Currently the percentage of Earth's land area stricken by serious drought is intensifying. Widespread drying has occurred over much of Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa, and Australia.
“Desertification, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, were singled out as the greatest challenges to sustainable development at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Unfortunately, desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) have accelerated during the 20th and 21st centuries to date, posing fundamental problems and challenges for drylands populations, nations and regions in particular.
Severe land degradation is estimated to be affecting 168 countries around the world, according to a first-of-its-kind cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of the global effects of desertification released during the UNCCD Conference and Committee Meeting held this past April (April, 2013 – editor) in Bonn, Germany. That’s up sharply from 110 as of a previous analysis of data submitted by UNCCD parties in the mid-1990s.” Andrew Burger, ‘Global Warming is Real’
“In April 2013, short-term global drought conditions intensified on all continents except Antarctica with little relief worldwide. In North America, the intensification was seen in the Central and Southern Plains of the U.S. and down into central Mexico. In South America, drought conditions changed little with severe drought conditions remaining in eastern Brazil and along the leeward side of the Southern Andes. In Africa, drought intensified along the equator, especially in the eastern part of the continent and across Madagascar. In Europe, drought intensified across most of the central part of the continent. In Asia, drought continued to intensify in southern China and across Southeast Asia, as well as across southern Russia and northern Kazakhstan and Mongolia. In Australia, drought intensification occurred in many inland areas.” drought.gov
“Namibia, already the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, is experiencing a severe drought, with some regions receiving the lowest seasonal rainfall in three decades.” June 3rd 2013, Newsday
“Australians are some of the world's greatest energy consumers, and people in Perth use more water than any other city in Australia. Yet theirs is also the driest climate in the world, and Perth sits right on the edge of a vast desert. Perth sits above a vast ancient aquifer of 40,000-year-old water that has traditionally been the main source of drinking water. But in the mid 1970s there was a dramatic shift in climate that resulted in a decline of between 15% and 20% in winter rainfall. The combination of rising temperatures and a lack of wet winters has meant a steady decline in water levels in the aquifer and they are not being recharged. By the mid 1990s, scientists realized they were facing more than a prolonged drought, that this was in fact climate change.” News.bbc.co.uk
As the earth warms some regions will get wetter, many much drier.
Climate change, global warming, drought and desertification. What’s happening in your particular region should be on your radar screen. Is it?
If not, it should be.
Richard (Rick) Mills
Richard is the owner of Aheadoftheherd.com and invests in the junior resource/bio-tech sectors. His articles have been published on over 400 websites, including:
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