Walk Like An Egyptian: What Climate Change Studies of Ancient Egypt May Teach Us Today

The study of ancient history provides many examples of how civilizations around the world rose and then fell due to a wide range of factors: famine, warfare, geological catastrophe, or disease. Archeologists have previously unearthed evidence of environmental changes suddenly wiping out a civilization, such as the 300-year drought that decimated the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia in approximately 2200 BC.

However, a new study takes that idea a step further and suggests that climate change — having sparked famine and civil unrest — may have lead to societal collapse in an ancient empire. Researchers of a study published in Nature Communications present evidence that massive volcanic eruptions altered the flow and seasonal flooding of the Nile River (which was, and still is, the lifeblood of Egypt) and the resulting famines and social unrest may have have been contributing or leading factors in the collapse of the Ptolemaic Egyptian Empire (300 BC to 30 BC). Lead researcher Joseph Manning of Yale University noted that “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.”

But what does evidence of climate change in ancient Egypt have to do with with us today, specifically with those of us living in the Southeastern United States? Perhaps little – that climate change was caused by volcanic eruptions, not anthropogenically-driven by carbon pollution as we are seeing today. On the other hand, the idea that climate change may have stressed structures of an ancient civilization to the breaking point offers a profound warning for modern societies, particularly those that depend on seasonal rains (or monsoons) for agriculture.

Here in the Southeastern United States, agriculture is one of the largest (if not the largest) industries in each of our states, including Florida, GeorgiaNorth Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and the U.S. National Climate Assessment reports that “Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 years. By mid-century and beyond, these impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock.”

If climate change continues to alter rainfall patterns, impact growing seasons (in some cases longer and in others shorter), facilitate the spread of pests and disease, and contribute to extreme weather events, it may have profound impacts on agriculture and food production for our region and around the world. In the Southeast, we’ve already seen where warmer temperatures lead to ‘early springs’, which can cause perennial crops (such as pecan or peach trees) to break dormancy early and subsequently get decimated by spring freezes.

Civilizations are built upon consistency in the climate–things we can reliably predict and adequately prepare for. When that consistency goes away, the structures and tools that sustained civilizations, things that have always worked before, may no longer suffice. In ancient Egypt, climate change may have triggered famines and social unrest; in modern day USA, climate change is increasingly impacting agriculture. While we are a long way off from famine in the U.S. it is important we work now to enact a combination of mitigation and adaptation to reduce climate risk and ensure long-lived food security for our nation and the world.

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