This project investigates how past societies responded to climate change. There is a general sense that modern societies are more insulated than pre-industrial societies from the effects of climate change, but this may not prove to be true. Developing a more complete understanding of how natural and human-caused changes affected the environment in the past can potentially guide decisions aimed at promoting future sustainability. Physical scientists often view abrupt changes in past climate as the primary cause for societal collapse; however, social scientists argue that sociopolitical decisions contribute to environmental change, and we should not study societal vulnerability without including an analysis of social structures. This project will integrate paleoenvironmental reconstruction with socioeconomic history to identify linkages between social and environmental change associated with climate variability. The research team includes paleoecologists, geologists, social historians and archeologists who will investigate a site near Rome, Italy that has been continuously utilized for over 2,300 years. The team will analyze medieval literature and property maps preserved in the archives of local monasteries, municipalities and the Vatican to obtain written "eye-witness accounts" of landscape change to help reconstruct the socioeconomic history of the region. In addition, the team will analyze physical evidence from lake sediments, including forest history from pollen, flood and erosion history from paleomagnetism and sediments, lake history from diatoms, temperature from oxygen isotopes, and fire history from charcoal analysis. By comparing the timing of significant environmental changes in the paleoenvironmental reconstruction to the timing of social history from written records the team will be able to suggest whether environmental change was caused by humans, by climate, or some complicated interaction of the two. In cases when climate change appears to have resulted in socioeconomic collapse, the research team will explore different models of socio-political structures that influenced how the local population was able to respond to the crisis.

Insights from this work will contribute to our understanding of actions that may guide policy decisions that better prepare communities for sustaining their local environment when faced with climatic change. The project will contribute to K-12 education by providing professional development to high school teachers of science, history and social studies. These teachers will create cross-disciplinary lesson plans that meet science curriculum standards and be disseminated to educators throughout the country using the Nevada Data Portal. Three graduate students will be supported while they earn advanced degrees in Geography (PhD), Geological Sciences (PhD) and Education (MA). These students will gain international experience, working with Italian researchers and graduate students. Six undergraduate students will also be supported as well as one early career female research scientist. This project will broaden the participation of underrepresented groups by both recruiting students from these groups, as well as working with high schools in communities with large populations of underrepresented groups. This project will advance scientific knowledge by creating a high resolution record of environmental change in the heart of the Roman Empire, a region that has been central to advances in western culture for thousands of years.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas J. Baerwald
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Board of Regents, Nshe, Obo University of Nevada, Reno
United States
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