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Patterns of Vegetation Cover affects Precipitation

Ben Cook (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) and colleagues used a high-resolution climate model developed at GISS to run simulations that compared how patterns of vegetation cover during pre-Columbian (before 1492 C.E.) and post-Columbian periods affected precipitation and drought in Central America. The pre-Columbian era saw widespread deforestation on the Yucatán Peninsula and throughout southern and central Mexico. During the post-Columbian period, forests regenerated as native populations declined and farmlands and pastures were abandoned.

Cook’s simulations include input from a newly published land-cover reconstruction that is one of the most complete and accurate records of human vegetation changes available. The results are unmistakable: Precipitation levels declined by a considerable amount — generally 10 to 20 percent — when deforestation was widespread. Precipitation records from stalagmites, a type of cave formation affected by moisture levels that paleo-climatologists use to deduce past climate trends, in the Yucatán agree well with Cook’s model results.

The effect is most noticeable over the Yucatán Peninsula and southern Mexico, areas that overlapped with the centers of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations and had high levels of deforestation and the most densely concentrated populations. Rainfall levels declined, for example, by as much as 20 percent over parts of the Yucatán Peninsula between 800 C.E. and 950 C.E.
Cook’s study supports previous research that suggests drought, amplified by deforestation, was a key factor in the rapid collapse of the Mayan empire around 950 C.E. In 2010, Robert Oglesby, a climate modeler based at the University of Nebraska, published a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research that showed that deforestation likely contributed to the Mayan collapse. Though Oglesby and Cook’s modeling reached similar conclusions, Cook had access to a more accurate and reliable record of vegetation changes.

During the peak of Mayan civilization between 800 C.E. and 950 C.E., the land cover reconstruction Cook based his modeling on indicates that the Maya had left only a tiny percentage of the forests on the Yucatán Peninsula intact. By the period between 1500 C.E. and 1650 C.E., in contrast, after the arrival of Europeans had decimated native populations, natural vegetation covered nearly all of the Yucatán. In modern times, deforestation has altered some areas near the coast, but a large majority of the peninsula’s forests remain intact.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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