Did the Mayan civilization end because of climate change?


Is There a Warning in the Mayan Collapse?
Teenage boys dressed as ancient Mayan warriors.  What lessons does the decline of Mayan civilization hold for us today?
Teenage boys dressed as ancient Mayan warriors. What lessons does the decline of Mayan civilization hold for us today?
John & Lisa Merrill/The Image Bank/Getty Images

You've probably heard the claims that the Mayan calendar prophecies the end of the world in 2012 -- an idea that for some reason is tremendously appealing to modern-day apocalypse junkies, even though it's totally incorrect. Here's the 411: While December 21, 2012 corresponds to the end of a Mayan calendar cycle, the calendar calls for another cycle to begin immediately after that [source: Wolchover].

That said, there are some lesson from the Mayan collapse that we ignore at our own peril. Scientists worry that we are repeating the same pattern of deforestation that may have exacerbated climate change in Central America more than a millennium ago, except on a far more massive scale. Trees are about 50 percent carbon, and in the U.S alone, they presently absorb between 1 and 3 million metric tons (984,206 to 2,952,691 tons) of atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide, which offsets between 20 and 46 percent of what Americans spew into the atmosphere by burning coal and gasoline. But when we cut down trees or burn them, they release their stored carbon into the atmosphere, and they aren't around to absorb any more of it [source: Johnson].

Over the past several centuries, the U.S. has cut down about 90 percent of the forests that once covered the continent, and what remains is still in peril. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, about 80 percent of the old-growth forestland is slated for eventual logging [source: University of Michigan]. Worse yet, in nations in the developing world -- Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia -- once-lush forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate, thanks to logging, agriculture, and need for living space. In recent years, there's been some international progress in slowing the rate of deforestation, but we still face the risk that it will push us even faster into climate chaos [source: Johnson]. It's a problem that we must work harder to solve.

Author's Note: Did the Mayan Civilization End Because of Climate Change?

When I was researching this article, what fascinated me the most was reading old newspaper stories about Charles Lindbergh and other early 20th century explorers who searched for ancient Mayan cities in the Central American jungle. There was a thrilling, Indiana Jones sort of quality to these accounts, as the searchers ventured into remote areas where outsiders had never visited, at least not in the memory of that time. Today, sadly, there's precious little unexplored territory left on the planet, so the chance of anyone having such an adventure -- or of making such an incredible discovery -- is exceedingly remote.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Associated Press. "How Lindy Found Lost City Is Told." Sarasota Herald-Tribune. July 31, 1929. (November 11, 2012) http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=nuIhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=K2QEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2185,1948745&dq=lindbergh+yucatan+pyramid+city&hl=en
  • Boyle, Rebecca. "Political Strife Caused By Climate Change Doomed The Mayans." Popsci.com. Nov. 9, 2012. (Nov. 28, 2012) http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-11/political-strife-caused-climate-change-doomed-maya
  • Brewbaker, James L. "Diseases of Maize in the Wet Lowland Tropics and the Collapse of the Classic Maya Civilization." Economic Botany. 1979. (November 19, 2012) http://www.springerlink.com/content/l2167t2v51850pu6/
  • Britannica.com. "Maya." Britannica.com. Undated. (November 18, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/370759/Maya
  • Diamond, Jared. "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." Penguin. 2005. (November 19, 2012) http://books.google.com/books/about/Collapse.html?id=QyzHKSCYSmsC
  • Haug, Gerald H. etal. "Climate and the Collapse of Mayan Civilization." Science. March 14, 2003. (November 18, 2012) ftp://ftp.geosci.usyd.edu.au/pub/dietmar/GEOS2115_Reading_Material/Paleoceanography/Haug_etal_maya_collapse_climate_change_Science2003.pdf
  • Johnson, Toni. "Deforestation and Greenhouse Gas Emissions." Council on Foreign Relations. December 21, 2009. (November 19, 2012) http://www.cfr.org/natural-resources-management/deforestation-greenhouse-gas-emissions/p14919
  • McKillop, Heather Irene. "The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives." ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2004. (November 19, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=BmPpbB2cXu4C&pg=PA97&dq=mayan+collapse+theories&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5WOqUNKqA-qy0QH-qoDwDA&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mayan%20collapse%20theories&f=false
  • NASA. "The Rise and Fall of the Mayan Empire." Nasa.gov. April 6, 2011. (November 18, 2012) http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2004/15nov_maya/
  • Schuster, Angela M. H. "Rituals of the Modern Maya." Archaeology. July/August 1997. (Nov. 28, 2012) http://www.archaeology.org/9707/etc/maya.html
  • ScienceDaily. "Classic Maya Civilization Collapse Related to Modest Rainfall Reductions, Research Suggests." Sciencedaily.com. February 22, 2012. (November 18, 2012). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120223142455.htm
  • University of Michigan. "Global Deforestation." Globalchange.umich.edu. Undated. (November 19, 2012) http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange2/current/lectures/deforest/deforest.html
  • U.S. Forest Service. "Value of Urban Trees." U.S. Forest Service. Undated. (Nov. 28, 2012) http://www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/uf/techguide/values.htm
  • U.S. Global Change Research Program. "Global Climate Change." Globalchange.gov. Undated. (November 19, 2012)http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts/full-report/global-climate-change
  • Wolchover, Natalie. "NASA Crushes 2012 Mayan Apocalypse Claims." Scientific American. March 9, 2012. (November 19, 2012) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nasa-crushes-2012-mayan-apocalypse-claims

More to Explore