Apocalypse Then…Apocalypse Now? – Three civilisations caught out by climate change

The story of the Maya reveals that human induced climate change is not the recent phenomenon it is so often perceived to be. In fact, it stands as a warning to current generations in Central and South America who are deforesting the region at an unprecedented rate.

History repeats itself – Large scale deforestation is occurring throughout the Americas.


3. The Khmer Empire – Cambodia

Image by Robert Nyman, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence, via Flickr

The Khmer civilisation is best known for building the stunning city of Angkor in modern day Cambodia. The largest pre-industrial city in the world 10, Angkor was renowned for its sophisticated water management system. However after a period of decline in the 13th and 14th centuries the city was all but abandoned by the end of the 15th.

Tree ring data indicates that the city experienced decades-long drought interspersed with intense monsoons through the 14th and 15th centuries that put a heavy strain on the water management system and contributed to its demise 11.

While conflicts and invasion ultimately sealed the fate of Angkor, there is strong evidence to suggest that the fortunes of the Khmer were fundamentally linked to fluctuations in the reach and volume of the Asian monsoon 12. At the time of the civilisation’s collapse, sediment cores from the city’s reservoir complex show that the water supply had declined by a factor of ten 13.

nature cloud sky sunrise sunset morning lake dawn dusk evening reflection jungle asia trees temple cambodia history angkor wat mirroring afterglow temple complexes
Angkor was known as the ‘Hydraulic City’ due to its sophisticated water management system.

Without a doubt, the modern world has done a remarkable job of buffering us against the temperamental nature of the natural climate. Not only can we understand and predict weather and climate, but we can transport resources at a scale and over distances which were unimaginable to our ancestors.

But in the process we have become detached from nature, and risk taking it for granted. Never forget that every component of the modern world was either dug from the ground or grown in it.  Plastic, glass, concrete, steel – all the trappings of an urban environment – started in the ground. And our food still relies on the fundamental natural processes that govern the climate.

Now, with carbon dioxide levels up 40% in 200 years, we have effectively put natural climate variability on steroids. Whether we accept it or not we, like the Egyptians, Maya and Khmer, are at the mercy of the climate. Does this mean modern civilisation, like its predecessors, will collapse due to climate change? Perhaps not. But for the ancients, societal collapse was preceded by a period of decline directly related to an unpredictable and unreliable climate. Unless we heed scientific facts and the warnings of history, we are in danger of watching our society slowly unravel like a disaster viewed in slow motion.



  1. Büntgen, U., Tegel, W., Nicolussi, K., McCormick, M., Frank, D., Trouet, V., Kaplan, J.O., Herzig, F., Heussner, K.U., Wanner, H. and Luterbacher, J., 2011. 2500 years of European climate variability and human susceptibility. Science331(6017), pp.578-582.
  2. Hassan, F.A., 1997. Nile floods and political disorder in early Egypt. In Third millennium BC climate change and old world collapse (pp. 1-23). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  3. United States Geological Survey. “Climate and drought lessons from ancient Egypt.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 August 2012. .
  4. Bernhardt, C.E., Horton, B.P. and Stanley, J.D., 2012. Nile Delta vegetation response to Holocene climate variability. Geology, 40(7), pp.615-618.
  5. Kennett, D.J., Breitenbach, S.F., Aquino, V.V., Asmerom, Y., Awe, J., Baldini, J.U., Bartlein, P., Culleton, B.J., Ebert, C., Jazwa, C. and Macri, M.J., 2012. Development and disintegration of Maya political systems in response to climate change. Science, 338(6108), pp.788-791.
  6. Medina-Elizalde, M. and Rohling, E.J., 2012. Collapse of Classic Maya civilization related to modest reduction in precipitation. Science, 335(6071), pp.956-959.
  7. Cook, B.I., Anchukaitis, K.J., Kaplan, J.O., Puma, M.J., Kelley, M. and Gueyffier, D., 2012. Pre‐Columbian deforestation as an amplifier of drought in Mesoamerica. Geophysical Research Letters, 39(16).
  8. Turner, B.L. and Sabloff, J.A., 2012. Classic Period collapse of the Central Maya Lowlands: Insights about human–environment relationships for sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(35), pp.13908-13914.
  9. Oglesby, R.J., Sever, T.L., Saturno, W., Erickson, D.J. and Srikishen, J., 2010. Collapse of the Maya: Could deforestation have contributed?. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 115(D12).
  10. Evans et al., A comprehensive archaeological map of the world’s largest pre-industrial settlement complex at Angkor, Cambodia, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, August 23, 2007
  11. Buckley, B.M., Anchukaitis, K.J., Penny, D., Fletcher, R., Cook, E.R., Sano, M., Wichienkeeo, A., Minh, T.T. and Hong, T.M., 2010. Climate as a contributing factor in the demise of Angkor, Cambodia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(15), pp.6748-6752.
  12. Lieberman, V. and Buckley, B., 2012. The impact of climate on Southeast Asia, circa 950–1820: new findings. Modern Asian Studies, 46(5), pp.1049-1096.
  13. Day, M.B., Hodell, D.A., Brenner, M., Chapman, H.J., Curtis, J.H., Kenney, W.F., Kolata, A.L. and Peterson, L.C., 2012. Paleoenvironmental history of the West Baray, Angkor (Cambodia). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(4), pp.1046-1051.

17 Replies to “Apocalypse Then…Apocalypse Now? – Three civilisations caught out by climate change”

  1. Very great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have truly
    loved browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing
    on your rss feed and I hope you write once more very soon!

  2. That is really attention-grabbing, You’re a very professional blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and look ahead to in quest of more of your wonderful post. Additionally, I have shared your website in my social networks!

  3. I absolutely love your website.. Pleasant colors & theme.

    Did you make this amazing site yourself? Please reply back as I’m trying to
    create my own site and would love to find out where you got this from or what
    the theme is called. Kudos!

  4. I just like the helpful information you provide on your articles.
    I will bookmark your blog and test again right here regularly.
    I’m moderately sure I will learn lots of new stuff proper
    here! Good luck for the following!

  5. Eu não tenho como saber se seria só comigo ou se alguém encontrou algum problema com seu artigo.
    Parece como se que alguns dos textos dentro do seu conteúdo está aparecendo fora da
    tela. Pode outra pessoa por favor comentar para eu saber se isso está acontecendo só comigo.
    Isso pode ser um erro com meu navegador da internet, eu vi acontecer a mesma coisa com
    outro blog anteriormente. Desde já agradeço!

  6. I think everything posted made a great deal of sense.
    However, what about this? suppose you composed a catchier post title?
    I mean, I don’t want to tell you how to run your
    website, however what if you added a post title that
    makes people desire more? I mean Apocalypse Then…Apocalypse Now?
    – Three civilisations caught out by climate change | All About Climate is a little boring.
    You could look at Yahoo’s front page and see how they create article
    headlines to get viewers to click. You might add a related video or a pic or two to get people excited about what you’ve
    got to say. In my opinion, it could bring your
    posts a little livelier.

  7. Hiya! I know this is kinda off topic however I’d
    figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa?
    My blog covers a lot of the same topics as yours and I believe we
    could greatly benefit from each other. If you are interested feel
    free to shoot me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you!
    Superb blog by the way!

  8. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if
    you knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
    I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some
    time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this.
    Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

  9. Hello to all, how is the whole thing, I think every
    one is getting more from this website, and your views are good in support
    of new people.

  10. Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Your site is
    very useful. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Hi there! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to
    give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through your blog posts.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go
    over the same topics? Thanks a lot!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.