Maya May Have Caused Civilization-Ending Climate Change

February 29, 2008

Self-induced drought and climate change may have caused the destruction of the Maya civilization, say scientists working with new satellite technology that monitors Central America's environment.

Researchers from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, launched the satellite program, known as SERVIR, in early 2005 to help combat wildfires, improve land use, and assist with natural disaster responses.

The researchers occasionally refer to the project as environmental diplomacy.

But the program also found traces of the Maya's hidden, possibly disastrous agricultural past—and is now using those lessons to help ensure that today's civilizations fare better in the face of modern-day climate change.

SERVIR stands to warn leaders in Central and South America where climate change might deliver the hardest hits to their ecosystems and biodiversity, say developers Tom Sever and Daniel Irwin.

If the governments heed the warnings, the data may truly save lives, the experts add.

Secret Farms

More than a hundred reasons have been proposed for the downfall of the Maya, among them hurricanes, overpopulation, disease, warfare, and peasant revolt. (Read "Maya Rise and Fall" in National Geographic magazine (August 2007).

But Sever, NASA's only archaeologist, adds to evidence for another explanation.

"Our recent research shows that another factor may have been climate change," he said during a meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in Boston, Massachusetts, earlier this month.

One conventional theory has it that the Maya relied on slash-and-burn agriculture. But Sever and his colleagues say such methods couldn't have sustained a population that reached 60,000 at its peak.

The researchers think the Maya also exploited seasonal wetlands called bajos, which make up more than 40 percent of the Petén landscape that the ancient empire called home.

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