Modeling ancient history to inform the future

By Marcus Thomson, IIASA alumnus and a researcher at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), the University of California, Santa Barbara

IIASA alumnus Marcus Thomson explains how what we have learnt about prehistoric farming cultures can be used to provide useful insights on human societal responses to climate change.

The climate of the western half of the North American continent, between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coastal region, is dry by European standards. The American Southwest, in particular, centered roughly on the intersection of the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, is predominantly desert between high mountain plateaus. It is, and has always been, a challenging environment for farmers. Yet the prehistoric Southwest was home to complex maize-based agricultural societies. In fact, until the 19th century growth of industrial cities like New York, the Southwest contained ruins of the largest buildings north of Mexico — and these had been abandoned centuries before the Spanish arrived in the Americas.

© Mudwalker | Dreamstime.com

For more than a century, researchers have pored over data, from proxies of paleo-environmental change, to historiographies collected by explorers, to archaeology and computational models of human occupation, and produced a detailed picture of the socio-environmental, economic, and climatic conditions that could explain why these sites were abandoned. While details vary in fine-grained analyses of the various sub-groupings of peoples in the region, the big picture is one of societal transformation in adapting to climate change.

Also important is just how the climate changed during the period, because similar dynamics are expected to emerge in the future as a consequence of global warming. European historians point to a medieval era with generally warmer mean annual temperatures. In the Southwestern United States however, which is more sensitive to changes in drought than temperature, the period between roughly AD 850 to 1350 is known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA). The warm, dry MCA was followed by a long stretch of increased changes in the availability of water, known as the Little Ice Age (LIA). More frequent “warm droughts” at the end of the MCA, and generally increasing changes in water resources at the onset of the LIA, is thought to be a good analogy for future conditions in western North America.

When I had the good fortune to visit IIASA as a participant of the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) in 2016, I worked with research scholars Juraj Balkovič and Tamás Krisztin to develop a model of ancient Fremont Native American maize. The Fremont were an ancient forager-farmer people who lived in the vicinity of modern Utah. We used a climate model reconstruction of the temperature and rainfall between AD 850 and 1450 to drive this maize crop model, and compared modeled crop yields against changes in radiocarbon-derived occupations – in other words, the information gathered from carbon dated artifacts that show that an area was occupied by a particular people – from a few archaeological areas in Utah.

© Galyna Andrushko | Dreamstime.com

Among our findings was that changes in local temperatures appeared to play a larger role in the lives, practices and habits of the people who lived there than changes in regional, long-term temperature conditions [1]. Later, while a researcher at IIASA myself, I returned to the subject with one of our coauthors, professor Glen MacDonald of the University of California, Los Angeles, using an expanded geographic range and a more sophisticated treatment of radiocarbon dated occupation likelihoods.

We used the climate model to reconstruct prehistoric maize growing season lengths and mean annual rainfall for Fremont sites. We found that the most populous and resilient Fremont communities were at sites with low-variability season lengths; and low populations coincided with, or followed, periods of variable season lengths. This study confirmed the important dependence on climate variability; and more importantly, our results are in line with others on modern smallholder farming contexts.

More details on our latest study [2] have just been published online in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). It will become part of an ERL special issue looking at societal resilience drawing lessons from the past 5000 years. Studies like these can give useful insights on human societal responses to climate change because these ancient civilizations are, in a sense, completed experiments with complex human-environmental systems. For decision makers, who must plan early to commit resources to offset the effects of future climate change on smallholder farmers in similarly drought-sensitive, marginally productive environments, these studies indicate that year-to-year climatic variability drives occupation change more than long-term temperature change.

References:

[1] Thomson MJ, Balkovič J, Krisztin T, & MacDonald GM (2019). Simulated impact of paleoclimate change on Fremont Native American maize farming in Utah, 850–1449 CE, using crop and climate models. Quaternary International, 507, pp.95-107 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15472]

[2] Thomson MJ, & MacDonald GM (In press). Climate and growing season variability impacted the intensity and distribution of Fremont maize farmers during and after the Medieval Climate Anomaly based on a statistically downscaled climate model. Environmental Research Letters.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

5 years of Vietnam membership at IIASA

Tran Thi Vo-Quyen, IIASA guest research scholar from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), talks to Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam, about achievements and challenges that Vietnam has faced in the last 5 years, and how IIASA research will help Vietnam and VAST in the future.

Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam

What have been the highlights of Vietnam-IIASA membership until now?

In 2017, IIASA and VAST researchers started working on a joint project to support air pollution management in the Hanoi region which ultimately led to the successful development of the IIASA Greenhouse Gas – Air  Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model for the Hanoi region. The success of the project will contribute to a system for forecasting the changing trend of air pollution and will help local policy makers develop cost effective policy and management plans for improving air quality, in particular, in Hanoi and more widely in Vietnam.

IIASA capacity building programs have also been successful for Vietnam, with a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) becoming a key coordinator of the GAINS project. VAST has also benefited from two members of its International Cooperation Department visiting the IIASA External Relations Department for a period of 3 months in 2018 and 2019, to learn about how IIASA deals with its National Member Organizations (NMOs) and to assist IIASA in developing its activities with Vietnam.

What do you think will be the key scientific challenges to face Vietnam in the next few years? And how do you envision IIASA helping Vietnam to tackle these? 

In the global context Vietnam is facing many challenges relating to climate change, energy issues and environmental pollution, which will continue in the coming years. IIASA can help key members of Vietnam’s scientific community to build specific scenarios, access in-depth knowledge and obtain global data that will help them advise Vietnamese government officials on how best they can overcome the negative impact of these issues.

As Director General of the International Cooperation Department, can you explain your role in VAST and as representative to IIASA in a little more detail?

In leading the International Cooperation Department at VAST, I coordinate all collaborative science and technology activities between VAST and more than 50 international partner institutions that collaborate with VAST.

As the IIASA council representative for Vietnam, I participate in the biannual meeting for the IIASA council, I was also a member of the recent task force developed to implement the recommendations of a recent independent review of the institute. I was involved in consulting on the future strategies, organizational structure, NMO value proposition and need to improve the management system of IIASA.

In Vietnam, I advised on the establishment of a Vietnam network for joining IIASA and I implement IIASA-Vietnam activities, coordinating with other IIASA NMOs to ensure Vietnam is well represented in their countries.

You mentioned the development of the Vietnam-IIASA GAINS Model. Can you explain why this was so important to Vietnam and how it is helping to improve air quality and shape Vietnamese policy around air pollution? 

Air pollution levels in Vietnam in the last years has had an adverse effect on public health and has caused significant environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, undermining the potential for sustainable socioeconomic development of the country and impacting the poor. It was important for Vietnam to use IIASA researchers’ expertise and models to help them improve the current situation, and to help Vietnam in developing the scientific infrastructure for a long-lasting science-policy interface for air quality management.

The project is helping Vietnamese researchers in a number of ways, including helping us to develop a multi-disciplinary research community in Vietnam on integrated air quality management, and in providing local decision makers with the capacity to develop cost-effective management plans for the Hanoi metropolitan area and surrounding regions and, in the longer-term, the whole of Vietnam.

About VAST and Ninh Khac Ban

VAST was established in 1975 by the Vietnamese government to carry out basic research in natural sciences and to provide objective grounds for science and technology management, for shaping policies, strategies and plans for socio-economic development in Vietnam. Ninh Khac Ban obtained his PhD in Biology from VAST’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in 2001. He has managed several large research projects as a principal advisor, including several multinational joint research projects. His successful academic career has led to the publication of more than 34 international articles with a high ranking, and more than 60 national articles, and 2 registered patents. He has supervised 5 master’s and 9 PhD level students successfully to graduation and has contributed to pedagogical texts for postgraduate training in his field of expertise. 

Notes:
More information on IIASA and Vietnam collaborations. This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Running global models in a castle in Europe

By Matt Cooper, PhD student at the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, and 2018 winner of the IIASA Peccei Award

I never pictured myself working in Europe.  I have always been an eager traveler, and I spent many years living, working and doing fieldwork in Africa and Asia before starting my PhD.  I was interested in topics like international development, environmental conservation, public health, and smallholder agriculture. These interests led me to my MA research in Mali, working for an NGO in Nairobi, and to helping found a National Park in the Philippines.  But Europe seemed like a remote possibility.  That was at least until fall 2017, when I was looking for opportunities to get abroad and gain some research experience for the following summer.  I was worried that I wouldn’t find many opportunities, because my PhD research was different from what I had previously done.  Rather than interviewing farmers or measuring trees in the field myself, I was running global models using data from satellites and other projects.  Since most funding for PhD students is for fieldwork, I wasn’t sure what kind of opportunities I would find.  However, luckily, I heard about an interesting opportunity called the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, and I decided to apply.

Participating in the YSSP turned out to be a great experience, both personally and professionally.  Vienna is a wonderful city to live in, and I quickly made friends with my fellow YSSPers.  Every weekend was filled with trips to the Alps or to nearby countries, and IIASA offers all sorts of activities during the week, from cultural festivals to triathlons.  I also received very helpful advice and research instruction from my supervisors at IIASA, who brought a wealth of experience to my research topic.  It felt very much as if I had found my kind of people among the international PhD students and academics at IIASA.  Freed from the distractions of teaching, I was also able to focus 100% on my research and I conducted the largest-ever analysis of drought and child malnutrition.

© Matt Cooper

Now, I am very grateful to have another summer at IIASA coming up, thanks to the Peccei Award. I will again focus on the impact climate shocks like drought have on child health.  however, I will build on last year’s research by looking at future scenarios of climate change and economic development.  Will greater prosperity offset the impacts of severe droughts and flooding on children in developing countries?  Or does climate change pose a hazard that will offset the global health gains of the past few decades?  These are the questions that I hope to answer during the coming summer, where my research will benefit from many of the future scenarios already developed at IIASA.

I can’t think of a better research institute to conduct this kind of systemic, global research than IIASA, and I can’t picture a more enjoyable place to live for a summer than Vienna.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Rescuing the world from drowning

By Julian Hunt, IIASA postdoc

Possible location where the barriers could be installed © Anna Krivitskaia | Dreamstime.com

Sea level rise is one of the most challenging impacts of climate change. The continued rise in sea levels, partially caused by the melting of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, will result in large scale impacts in coastal areas as they are submerged by the sea. Locations not able to bear the costs of implementing protection and adaptation measures will have to be abandoned, resulting in social, economic and environmental losses.

The most important mitigation goal for sea level rise is to reduce or possibly revert carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Given the time lag between emission reductions and the impacts of climate change, new adaptation measures to reduce sea level rise should be proposed, developed and if possible, implemented.

A proposal that I developed during my D.Phil degree ten years ago, which resulted in a paper on the Mitigation and Adaptation to Global Change Journal1, shows that submerged barriers in front of ice sheets and glaciers would contribute to reducing the ice melt in Greenland. Edward Byers and I propose the construction of ten barriers at key glaciers in Greenland to stop the flow of warm salty ocean water reaching glaciers in Greenland and Atlantic, which are the main contributors to ice melting. This could reduce sea level rise by up to 5.3 meters at a levelized cost of US$275 million a year. The cost of the barriers is only a fraction of the estimated costs of adaptation measures to sea level rise around the world estimated to be US$1.4 trillion a year by 21002.

The barrier consists of several plain sheet modules of marine grade steel around 200 mm thick connected to cylindrical steel tubes with air inside to keep the barrier floating. The depth of the barriers varies from 30 – 500 meters and the required length to stop the sea water from entering the fjords, where the glaciers are located. As no such barrier has been developed before, we propose three main steps for the construction of the barrier:

  1. The barrier components should be transported to the designated location during the summer, when there is no ocean ice cover and the access to the location of the barrier is less challenging. Also during the summer, mooring structures should be added.
  2. During the winter, the barrier is assembled over the frozen ice cover.
  3. During the next summer, the ice cover will melt again and the barrier will float above the place where it is should be fixed. The mooring chains attached to the barrier will pull the barrier into place, using the mooring structures in the ground.

The concept of reducing the contact of seawater and glaciers to reduce ice sheet melting was first published by Moore in Nature3, and Wolovick in The Cryosphere4 with the construction of submerged dams. A graphic representation of the concept is presented in Figure 1. As you can see the barriers should be positioned just after the glacier cavity, where the depth required for the barrier would be the smallest. Our cost analysis shows that using submerged barriers would have one or two orders of magnitude lower costs when compared to submerged dams. Additionally, submerged barriers could be easily removed, if the need arise.

Figure 1. (a) Proposed location of the submerged barrier or dam, (b) submerged barrier characterizes, (c) submerged dam characterizes.

There are several issues involving the implementation of these barriers that should be considered before they are built. The reduction of ice melt in Greenland glaciers will contribute to an increase in seawater temperature and salinity of the Arctic Ocean, which will have a direct impact on the region’s biosphere, climate and ocean currents. The superficial ice cover in the Arctic will be considerably reduced. This would allow a new maritime route for ships to cross the Arctic Ocean, increase the absorption of CO2 by the Arctic Ocean, due to the increase in the ice free surface area and the cold seawater temperature, and the increase in radiation heat from the Arctic Ocean into space. Ice is a strong thermal insulator. Without the Arctic Ocean ice cover the temperature of the region and the heat radiated from the Earth to space will considerably increase, which could have a higher impact in cooling the Earth than the ice cover’s albedo effect. Thus, the reduction of the Arctic Ocean ice cover could contribute to reducing the overall CO2 concentration of the atmosphere and reducing the Earth’s temperature.

This solution, however, should not be used as an excuse to reduce focus on cutting CO2 emission. If the world continues to warm, not even submerged barriers in front of glaciers would be able to stop ice sheets melting and sea level rise.

References:

  1. Hunt J, Byers E (2018) Reducing sea level rise with submerged barriers and dams in Greenland. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change DOI: 10.1007/s11027-018-9831-y.   [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15649]
  2. Jevrejeva JS, Jackson LP, Grinsted A, Lincke D, and Marzeion B (2018) Flood damage costs under the sea level rise with warming of 1.5 ◦C and 2 ◦C. Environmental Research Letters DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aacc76
  3. Moore J, Gladstone R, Zwinger T, and Wolovick M (2018) Geoengineer polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise. Nature: https://go.nature.com/2GoPcGp
  4. Wolovick M, Moore J (2018) Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise? The Cryosphere DOI: 10.5194/tc-12-2955-2018

Insights into the future of agriculture from past human climate change responses

Ancestral Puebloans

© Marcus Thomson

By Marcus Thomson, researcher, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

While living in Cairo in 2010, I witnessed first-hand the human toll of political and environmental disasters that washed over Africa at the end of the last century. Unprecedented numbers of migrants were pressing into North Africa, many pushed out of their homelands by conflict and state-failure, pulled towards safer, richer, less fragile places like Europe. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change was driving up competition for scarce land and water, and raising pressure on farmers to maintain the quantity and quality of their crops.

It is a similar story throughout the developing world, where many farmers do without the use of expensive chemical fertilizer and pesticides, complex irrigation, or boutique seed varieties. They rely instead on traditional land management practices that developed over long periods with consistent, predictable conditions. It is difficult to predict how dryland farmers will respond to climate change; so it is challenging to plan for various social, economic, and political problems expected to develop under, or be exacerbated by, climate change. Will it spur innovation or, as has been argued for the Syrian civil war[1], set up conflict? A major stumbling block is that the dynamics of human social behavior are so difficult to model.

Instead of attempting to predict farmers’ responses to climate change by modelling human behavior, we can look to the responses to environmental changes of farmers from the past as analogues for many subsistence farmers of the future. Methods to fill in historical gaps, and reconstruct the prehistoric record, are valuable because they expand the set of observed cases of societal-scale responses to environmental change. For instance, some 2000 years ago, an expansive maize-growing cultural complex, the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), was well established in the arid American Southwest. By AD 1000, members of this AP complex produced unique and innovative material culture including the famed “Great Houses”, the largest built structures in the United States until the 19th century. However, between AD 1150 and 1350, there was a profound demographic transformation throughout the Southwest linked to climate change. We now know that many APs migrated elsewhere. As a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I wondered whether a shift to cooler, more variable conditions of the “Little Ice Age” (LIA, roughly AD 1300 to 1850) was linked to the production of their staple crop, maize.

I came to IIASA as a YSSP in 2016 to collaborate with crop modelers on this question, and our work has just been published in the journal Quaternary International.[2] I brought with me high-resolution data from a state-of-the-art climate model to drive the crop simulations, and AP site information collected by archaeologists. Because AP maize was quite different from modern corn, I worked with IIASA soil scientist Juraj Balkovič to modify the crop simulator with parameters derived from heirloom varieties still grown by indigenous peoples in the Southwest. I and IIASA economic geographer Tamás Krisztin developed a statistical technique to analyze the dynamical relationship between AP site occupation and simulated yield outcomes.

We found that for the most climate-stressed high-elevation sites, abandonments were most associated with increased year-to-year yield variability; and for the least stressed low-elevation and well-watered sites, abandonment was more likely due to endogenous stressors, such as soil degradation and population pressure. Crucially, we found that across all regions, populations peaked during periods of the most stable year-to-year crop yields, even though these were also relatively warm and dry periods. In short, we found that AP maize farmers adapted well to gradually rising temperatures and drought, during the MCA, but failed to adapt to increased climate variability after ~AD 1150, during the LIA. Because increased variability is one of the near certainties for dryland farming zones under global warming, the AP experience offers a cautionary example of the limits of low-technology adaptation to climate change, a business-as-usual direction for many sub-Saharan dryland farmers.

This is a lesson from the past that policymakers might take note of.

[1] Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201421533.

[2] Thomson, M. J., Balkovič, J., Krisztin, T., MacDonald, G. M. (2018). Simulated crop yield for Zea mays for Fremont Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah between 850-1499 CE based on temperature dailies from a statistically downscaled climate model. Quaternary International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2018.09.031