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Researchers link climate-induced disasters and food security across time and place

December 28, 2015

Teams of researchers in the American Southwest (including a group from Arizona State University) and North Atlantic islands have found that historic and prehistoric peoples in these regions who had created vulnerabilities to food shortfall were especially susceptible to impacts from climate challenges. Their “natural” disasters were human-made in conjunction with climate challenges, the researchers found.

Four pre-Columbian regions in arid to semi-arid deserts were compared with three sub-polar North Atlantic islands during Norse occupation. In each case, eight variables — ranging from social to environmental aspects — were applied to quantify vulnerability to food shortage before extreme climate challenges. The cases with lowest vulnerability showed no extreme social change or food shortage following climate disasters.

The researchers discovered that social factors, such as limitations on networks and mobility, were the primary contributors to vulnerability to food shortage.

The research teams were composed of archaeologists at Arizona State University and historians, archaeologists and geographers working in the subarctic islands of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes. Their findings appear in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were drawn to this collaboration because in spite of the different environments, cultures, histories, climates and identities of the two regions, we were asking the same kinds of questions about human capacities to address challenging climate conditions,” says lead author Margaret Nelson, President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Nelson also is vice dean of Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.

Understanding human capacities to address climate challenges is as important today as it was in the past.

“Our ability to combine our knowledge has led to understandings of this issue that transcends a single region, climate type, people or tradition,” Nelson said.

Nelson stresses that not only does the work identify the role of the past in informing the present but also the importance of exploring diverse conditions for understanding how to meet current challenges related to climate-induced disasters. Her research makes a case for addressing vulnerabilities as part of effective disaster management.

The School of Human Evolution and Social Change is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.