The Culture of Climate Change

Changes in human culture match major climate shifts

A microblade from Mesa, Alaska during the Paleoindian period. Photo: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

A changing climate changes the environment. We know that. But it also may change culture.

In a lesson that could have some relevance to human societies today, geographers at the University of Ottawa examined the overlap between climatic change and the changes in tool technology and other artifacts by Native American tribes during three ancient time periods.

Humans have lived on the North American continent long enough to have experienced dramatic shifts in climate caused by ice sheet expansion and retraction that altered patterns in temperature and precipitation. Plant and animal communities changed with these shifts, resulting in new ecosystems by which humans would have relied on.

In a comprehensive look at these shifts beginning 11,250 years ago, the researchers matched pollen and charcoal records with archaeological remains along the Eastern seaboard. They found with every major shift in climate and ecosystem, a corresponding alteration occurred in human cultures.

In the Paleoindian period, characterized by a tundra landscape and a coniferous forest environment during a cold snap called the Younger Dryas, humans were living in nomadic bands and hunted big game like caribou.

The lifestyle changed with the advent of the warmer Archaic period, about 11,600 years ago. Oak and pine came to predominate forests, followed by hemlock and beech as the climate became moister. These nut and fruit producing trees would have been an important source of nutrients, and humans settlements show the rise of semi-permanent base camps, fishing, and the hunting of smaller game.

The transition from Archaic to Woodland periods, 3,000 years ago, shows a dip in temperatures and deeper snowpacks; human population declined during this shift. But humans recovered and well into the Woodland they period began experimenting with maize agriculture, pottery, and permanent settlements.The authors write:

“… our work shows a close correspondence between periods of change in ecosystems and the archaeological record, and highlights the complex and multidirectional nature of human-climate relationships.”

Humans have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to new climate and environmental conditions. In today’s era of climate change, adapt or die is no different, no matter how much we can better buffer ourselves from the weather.

How Genghis Khan may have cooled the planet

If human consumption and population growth can be linked to warming the climate, there’s certainly a sensible argument to be made that a reversal in the trend could cool the planet down.

Equestrian statue of Genghis Khan, near Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

War, invasion, disease epidemics, and societal collapse — all events that are devastating to humans — may actually have helped drop temperatures momentarily, according to a study published this week in the journal, The Holocene. It’s kind of a morbid perspective, and one that pits humans squarely as the enemy of a stable climate. But there it is, worth a little chewing on.

Lead author Julia Pongratz from the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University used a climate-carbon cycle model to look at several devastating events in human history: Genghis Khan in the Mongol invasion (1200-1380 AD), the Black Death (1347-1400AD), the conquest of the Americas (1519-1700 AD), and finally the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1600-1650 AD).

Pongratz’s theory was that a drop in population, or the disruption of war, would have taken agricultural land out of production, returning these lands instead to forest cover and natural ecosystems that store carbon. The researchers came up with their estimates on temperature cooling by using pre and post population estimates from each of these major events, using estimates on the amount of agricultural land each person would have required, and then calculating the additional CO2 uptake from that land lying fallow.

So, for example, the Mongol invasion, the population dropped by about 30 percent in the impacted area, which resulted in the regrowth of 142,000 km2 of forests and a reduction in global carbon emissions of 183 megatons.

Animation showing the spread of The Black Death from 1346 through to 1351. Image Credit: Timemaps, Wikimedia Commons

According to the researchers, that’s not enough to have any significant global cooling impact – not more than 1 part per million concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s because even as some part of the planet was heavily impacted by the event, elsewhere in the world human populations could have been expanding and taking down more forested land for agriculture.

There would also have been a lag time in carbon uptake after such events as trees and vegetation need 100 years or more to mature. Previous plant material also has to decompose, taking away the net CO2 storage effects of new plant cover.

Nevertheless, the study brings up an interesting point about human impacts on the climate. The Industrial Revolution is normally pointed to as the event that catapulted the planet into long term climate change. But humans have been contributing to higher and higher CO2 levels since the advent of agriculture and the burning of fires.

The corrective forces of war and disease helped buffer the impacts of humans on CO2 levels in those earlier days. But people had learned they could alter their environment, a revelation that brings us to today.