Joseph Manning wins major NSF grant to study climate change, human history link

A graphic of papyrus with an exploding volcano in the background.
(© Department of Papyrology, Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw)

A Yale-led project examining the link between explosive volcanic eruptions and the annual Nile river summer flooding in antiquity has received an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The project, titled “Volcanism, Hydrology and Social Conflict: Lessons from Hellenistic and Roman-Era Egypt and Mesopotamia,” has received $1.3 million from the NSF. It is funded through the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program, which supports interdisciplinary research that examines human and natural system processes and the complex interactions between the two systems at diverse scales.

Joseph Manning
Joseph Manning

Joseph Manning, the William K. & Marilyn Milton Simpson Professor of History and Classics at Yale, is the principal investigator on the project. The co-principal investigators on the grant are Francis Ludlow, Trinity College Dublin; Alexander Stine, San Francisco State University; Jennifer Marlon, Yale University; and Konstantinos Tsigaridis, Columbia University.

The project — an international collaboration among historians, scientists, hydrologists, and statisticians — seeks to understand how large volcanic eruptions can reduce average global temperatures and suppress average global precipitation, causing dramatic effects on annual rainfall on the Nile watershed in historic times. The human response to this annual flooding, and to its variability over the years, was the major driver of Egyptian history up to the completion of the high dam at Aswan in 1970, say the researchers. They will examine the coupling between the hydrological cycle and human society in Egypt during the Hellenistic era (305 to 30 B.C.E.), a well-documented period of economic, technological, and social change with often violent rivalries between major regional powers. The results will also broaden an understanding of best-practice responses to the changing climate in the modern world.

The researchers on the project will capitalize upon a rare confluence of natural and human archives for Ancient Egypt and the Near East. They will compare rich historical records such as papyrus documents and inscriptions with environmental data and regional climate and hydrologic simulations for repeated, abrupt climate events. The research will determine whether and how social dynamics are climate-driven, and whether and how human water management affects regional climate and hydrology. Volcanic eruptions provide tests of human and natural system sensitivity to abrupt shocks because their repeated occurrence allows the identification of systematic relationships in the presence of random variability, say the researchers.

With this grant, the project will integrate historical data from a wealth of different archives to analyze the connections between climate variability, social unrest, and institutional change during the Hellenistic era; improve knowledge of hydrological responses to volcanic eruptions; and document the extent of human impacts on Mediterranean hydrology. This historical analysis will describe the mechanisms through which environmental stress influenced state-level behaviors, community responses (such as changes in land and water management), and interstate conflict during the Hellenistic period, and how in return human activities interactively affected soils, land cover, hydrology, and regional climate.

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, an administrator of the award and a noted hub of interdisciplinary research and communication, will play a key role in disseminating the results of the study. In collaboration with Manning and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in year three of the grant, the museum will develop a traveling exhibition program to inform the public about the complex interactions between human and natural systems.

The exhibition will feature artifacts and specimens from the Yale Babylonian Collection, the Beinecke Library, and the Peabody Museum, and is intended to reframe visitors’ understanding of historic events by demonstrating the close connection between climate change and human history and, more specifically, humankind’s connection to a dynamic Earth. The exhibition will travel to five additional venues across the United States to ensure a diverse audience.

The Peabody Museum is really a key player in our work; first because of all the great help we received in applying to the NSF and in coordinating work with three other universities. Second, the kind of work we are doing, studying the coupling between human society and environment, finds a natural home in the Peabody and its mission. And finally, because our results will be showcased in an exhibition in the museum, which will then travel around the country. Educating the public about our work is a crucial component of the project,” says Manning.

This project is one of the first entirely historical projects that the NSF has funded,” says Manning. “We are incredibly, deeply grateful for this grant.”

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Bess Connolly Martell: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324