Mayan Tree Chopping May Have Worsened Droughts, and Contributed to The Civilization's Demise

By Sophie Bushwick | August 22, 2012 12:51 pm

The Mayan rain god Chac

Droughts do far worse than brown our lawns—the water shortages and crop damage they mete out, and the fires fed by dry conditions, have effects that last long after rain returns. These events may even have civilization-destroying powers: although doubts remain, many researchers consider drought one of the leading contributors to the collapse of the Maya. And a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters finds that by cutting down forests, Mayans may have directly contributed to the droughts that brought about the downfall of their society.

Like modern civilizations, Mayans felled trees in order to harvest the raw material and clear land for cities and crops. Researchers modeled how this deforestation affected local climate conditions with computer simulations. Cleared land absorbs less solar energy, which means it releases less moisture to contribute to rainfall. By comparing untampered or regrown forest to reconstructions of the tree cover during Mayan occupation, researchers found that razed land could have reduced annual rainfall by 5 to 15 percent. This means that of the estimated drought during the height of Mayan civilization, 60 percent of the rainfall decrease was likely due to deforestation.

The finding is particularly sobering because today, climate change may be making droughts more common. Will these dry spells impact us the same way that deforestation-induced droughts affected the Maya?

Image courtesy of Leonard G. / Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Human Origins
  • Old Geezer

    So much for “…the rain will follow the plow…” ravings of the 19th century land promoters enticing settlers to the American Plains.

  • cheyenne

    Hello….we have deforested a far larger area than the Mayans. Further climate disruption is inevitable, and wildfires caused by drought will destroy even more forest. Goodbye civilization! Goodbye to mammals of every shape over 50 pounds. Goodbye…

  • http://deleted VIP

    “Mayan Tree Chopping May Have Worsened Droughts”.
    Not likely. Yucatan was only a marginally populated peninsula, and still is.

  • http://discover Su

    We are also concreting over the last of the aquafer in my are of Florida and the Moronic Army Corps of Engineers thinks we can reduce the levels of our rivers by 15% with only “minor” damage to the ecosystem.

    I am going to get solar power concrete in my well and start a garden on the small amount of land not planted by fruit trees, or the 1,000+ trees I surrounded myself by. I did my part to save the earth.

  • Steve McGill

    “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”- Rodney Crowell


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