Startling Evidence: Egypt's Mighty Empire Destroyed by Climate Change, Volcanoes
October 24, 2017 Joe McCarthy / Global Citizen & Alicia McDermott / Ancient Origins
Building the pyramids was challenging feat. But so is mitigating climate change. In many ways, ancient Egypt had a lot of parallels to modern life. It was an economically diverse, culturally vibrant and unequal place forced to deal with a phenomenon that people today know all too well: climate change. Research shows how climate change and volcanic eruptions triggered a chain reaction of drought, famine, instability and social conflict that lead to the collapse of the mighty Egyptian Empire.
Climate Change Affected Ancient Egypt, Too -- And Led to Its Demise Joe McCarthy / Global Citizen & EcoWatch
(October 18, 2017) -- Ancient Egypt is often described as an exotic place -- pyramids, hieroglyphics, lavishly worshipped kings and queens. But in many ways, it has a lot of parallels to modern life. It was an economically diverse, culturally vibrant and unequal place.
The millenniums-old society also struggled with a phenomenon that people today know all too well: climate change. And it may have ultimately led to the civilization's demise, according to a new paper by a team of researchers at Yale University.
The team of researchers studied the tail-end of ancient Egypt during the Ptolemaic dynasty between 305-30 BCE.
Their research shows how climate change can stress a society, causing a chain reaction of drought, famine, instability and conflict, and it provides useful lessons for the urgency of acting to avert such developments today.
Ancient Egypt was dependent on floodwaters from the Nile River to irrigate crops that could feed society, the report explains. When the region faced drought, crop yields would plummet and cause widespread unrest.
The researchers were able to determine that the worst of these droughts were caused by volcanic eruptions, which released sulfurous gases into the atmosphere, altering precipitation patterns and disrupting seasonal monsoons.
Because this period of ancient Egypt was well-documented, the researchers were able to correspondingly chart volcanic eruptions with periods of conflict.
"In years influenced by volcanic eruptions, Nile flooding was generally diminished, leading to social stress that could trigger unrest and have other political and economic consequences,"Joseph Manning, a professor at Yale and lead author on the paper, said in a press release.
This dynamic mirrors on a local level what's happening on a global level today. More than 70 percent of the world's population is dependent on consistent monsoon seasons, according to the researchers, and the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is destabilizing precipitation patterns, putting the livelihoods of billions of people at risk.
As critical resources are compromised through drought, heatwaves, extreme weather and other factors, military experts fear that the ensuing instability could cause conflict.
The example of ancient Egypt provides a sobering example that such conflict is possible.
The US Department of Defense refers to climate change as a "threat multiplier," meaning that it can put pressure on existing societal tensions, accelerating the likelihood of conflict.
That's basically what happened in ancient Egypt, argue the researchers.
"Diminished Nile flooding acted to trigger revolts and constrain Ptolemaic war making . . . explaining that the shocks from poor Nile flooding would have occurred against a background of multiple socioeconomic and political difficulties that would have compounded the impacts of Nile variability," the press release states.
There's one key difference between now and then, however. The climate change faced by ancient Egypt was caused by volcanic eruptions. Today's climate change is driven by human activities that release greenhouse gas emissions.
And the world's current predicament would be worsened by another large-scale volcanic eruption -- which the team at Yale says we're long overdue for.
"Sooner or later we will experience a large volcanic eruption, and perhaps a cluster of them, that will act to exacerbate drought in sensitive parts of the world," said Manning.
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(October 19, 2017) -- The Nile river was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt. When the waterway flooded nearby lands things were good, but a lack of that precious water caused serious issues. Now, historians have found that the famous waterway could have been negatively impacted at key moments in the Ptolemaic period -- inciting social, political, and economic upheavals. Most surprisingly, it seems that the lack of Nile flooding could have been set off by volcanic eruptions altering the climate.
The results of research on the link between the climatic impact in ancient Egypt by volcanoes was recently published in Nature Communications.
In the paper, the authors explain that "Explosive eruptions can perturb climate by injecting sulfurous gases into the stratosphere; these gases react to form reflective sulfate aerosols that remain aloft in decreasing concentrations for approximately one to two years."
Through a chain of events, those sulfurous gases cool the atmosphere, and if that takes place in the Northern Hemisphere, monsoon rains may not move as far as they usually do.
Francis Ludlow, a climate historian at Trinity College in Dublin and a co-author of the study, explained to EurekAlert! how those climatic events impacted the Nile River, "When the monsoon rains don't move far enough north, you don't have as much rain falling over Ethiopia. And that's what feeds the summer flood of the Nile in Egypt that was so critical to agriculture."
Science Alert reports that the researchers have linked at least three major events in ancient Egypt's declining years to volcanic eruptions and the subsequent suppression of the Nile.
An eruption in 245 BC has been used as a partial explanation for Ptolemy III's exit from the area now Syria and Iraq, as the Roman historian Justinus wrote, if Ptolemy III "had not been recalled to Egypt by disturbances at home, [he] would have made himself master of all Seleucus's dominions."
The 20-year Theban revolt (starting in 207 BC) has been connected to another volcanic eruption. And finally, eruptions during the reign of Cleopatra VII in 46 and 44 BC led to serious famines and the release of state-reserved grain.
This may have been the so-called "straw that broke the camel's back" -- climatic, social, political, and economic upheaval combined and brought down the famous ancient Egyptian civilization.
Ludlow says that the connection between the eruptions, Nile failure, and problematic events in Egypt are "highly unlikely to have occurred by chance, such is the level of overlap."
The historians determined the impact of the eruptions on the Nile and Egyptian society by examining a monument known as al-Miqyas, or the Nilometer, which has preserved a record of the Nile's summer peaks since the early 7th century.
They combined that data with events prior to that time by piecing together information from previous research providing a timeline of major volcanic eruptions around the world and historical records.
Yale University researcher Joseph Manning told EurekAlert! "That's the beauty of these climate records. For the first time, you can actually see a dynamic society in Egypt, not just a static description of a bunch of texts in chronological order."
But this is not just a story of past issues, the researchers stressed to EurekAlert! that we should take note. Ludlow says: "The 21st century has been lacking in explosive eruptions of the kind that can severely affect monsoon patterns. But that could change at any time. The potential for this needs to be taken into account in trying to agree on how the valuable waters of the Blue Nile are going to be managed between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt."
This study is part of the Volcanic Impacts on Climate and Society working group of Past Global Changes (PAGES), a global research project of Future Earth.
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