Climate Change and The Fall of The Mayan Civilization: Are They Connected?

Published by ISAFIS on

Author: Natasya Fila Rais

Climate change, also called global warming, refers to the rise in average surface temperatures on Earth.[1] There has been a few debates on whether climate change is real or not. There is a broad agreement that says climate change is real. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concur that climate change is indeed occurring and is almost certainly due to human activity.[2] An overwhelming scientific consensus maintains that climate change is due primarily to the human use of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. The gases trap heat within the atmosphere, which can have a range of effects on ecosystems, including rising sea levels, severe weather events, and droughts that render landscapes more susceptible to wildfires.[3] Human activities, such as deforestation and agriculture, are believed to contribute to climate change.

Climate change can cause the rising of the Earth’s temperature.  The earth’s average temperature has gone up 1.4° F over the past century and is expected to rise as much as 11.5° F over the next.[4] The temperature rising can cause the polar ice caps to melt, which will lead to the rising of the sea level. Such rising will cause more frequent and dangerous storm, rapid intensity of rainfall, flood, and threaten animal habitats and endangered species.

The Maya Empire, became an influential ancient civilization in the sixth century A.D. It was located on the Yucatan Peninsula and region that is now known as Guatemala. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork.[5] The declining of the Mayan civilization was claimed to be one of the most mysterious declining processes among other ancient civilizations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed.[6] Prior to the development of the drought theory on Mayan civilization’s demise, researchers had suggested soil erosion as the cause of the civilization’s downfall.[7] Soil erosion happened as a result of the Mayans chopping down forests in order to create farmlands. The environment where the Mayans lived could no longer sustain the lives of the people there. Extreme and intense period of drought was believed to be one of the reasons why the Maya civilization collapsed. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power.[8]

Looking at the cause of the declining of the Mayan civilization, it is believed that climate change is the primary reason why the aforementioned collapsed. Scholars, scientists, and historians who are experts on the Mayan civilization are still arguing on the fact. The declining of the Mayan civilization is suspected to be caused by soil erosion, drought, deforestation, and warfare. During the modern day, soil erosion, drought, and deforestation are considered as a few factors that contribute to climate change. From such perspective, it is believed that the Mayan civilization collapsed because of the climate change. The Yucatan Peninsula, where the Mayans were located, is a seasonal desert. The region depends on heavy summer rains that provide as much as 90 percent of the annual precipitation.[9] Precipitation happened rapidly across the peninsula. Surface water often dissolves the limestone bedrock of the Yucatán, and also creates caves and underground rivers.[10] David A. Hodell had proposed the idea of the drought theory in 1995 after analyzing sediment records in Lake Chichancanab. The lake is located in Yucatán, Mexico and possesses gastropod and ostracod shells with varying levels of the isotope 18O. A small percent of H218O naturally resides in the lake water, but when temperatures rise, the proportion of H218O becomes greater.[11] Douglas Kennett’s data also show particularly long droughts between 200-300 C.E., 820-870 C.E., 1020-1100 C.E., and 1530-580 C.E. Short but very severe droughts also occurred in 420, 930, and 1800 C.E.[12]

From the data provided, it could be possible for the Mayan civilization to collapse because of the climate change, as the phenomenon that happened during those times was similar to the cause of climate change in this era. However, it is said that warfare also contributed to the collapsing Mayan civilization, so natural phenomenon is not the sole cause of the declining of the civilization. The warfare itself contributes to the death of the Mayans, not only through war, but also through extreme food shortage.

In conclusion, debates are still happening between scholars and the Maya civilization expertise whether the cause of the Mayan civilization to decline is because of climate change. However, looking at the history, phenomenon, such as deforestation, drought, and soil erosion, happened very often in the area. If we bring back those causes to the modern times, what happened during the collapsing of the Mayan civilization was aligned to the causes of climate change that we have known and scientists have concluded. It might not seem as though climate change is the primary cause of the declining, however natural disasters might contribute as the catalysts of the declining of the Mayan civilization.

  1. Staff (2009) “Maya” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,
  2. Mott, Nicholas (2012) “Why the Maya Fell: Climate Change, Conflict – And a Trip to the Beach?” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,
  3. Oh, Na Eun (2013) “Climate Change and the Decline of Mayan Civilization” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,
  4. Takepart (n.d.) “What is Climate Change?” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,

[1] Takepart (n.d.) “What is Climate Change?” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Staff (2009) “Maya” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Oh, Na Eun (2013) “Climate Change and the Decline of Mayan Civilization” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,

[8] Staff (2009) “Maya” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,

[9] Oh, Na Eun (2013) “Climate Change and the Decline of Mayan Civilization” Retrieved April 22, 2018, from,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.