Through the Looking Glass

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Do you have questions about what it’s like to be a ecologist? Ask Dorothy Peteet, and keep your eyes on Science Buzz for the answer!

"I grew up in the mountains of Georgia in an area that has one of the most diverse landscapes of plant life in the United States. My interest and passion for the outdoors and the wilderness grew from there, as well as an intense curiosity about how what is happening in the environment controls the plant life and their ecosystem."
Dorothy Peteet

Join NASA scientist, Dorothy Peteet, on a fantastic scientific adventure “through the looking glass,” where time runs backwards to learn about Earth’s past climate. Enter her world of paleoclimatology to search for signs of how Earth’s climate is changing.

To get started, imagine a time when civilization is flourishing. Great advances in science and technology are underway. Population is growing exponentially. People are flooding into urban centers like never before, engineering their landscape and literally transforming it to accommodate society's rapid development.

The thousand-year-old temple in Maya city of Tikal
The thousand-year-old temple in Maya city of TikalCourtesy NASA GISS
When is all this change happening? If you guessed the 20th or 21st centuries, think again. It’s around 1800 BC to 900 AD. In Central America, the Mayans civilization is flourishing for much of this time before its mysterious disappearance. Recent research by paleoclimatologists. and archeologists provides us clues to solve this mystery. Mayans faced “The Medieval Warming” from 950 AD to 1250 along with catastrophic and prolonged droughts, likely causing them to abandon their great cities.

Looking at past climates when our early ancestors lived allows us to see how humans adapt to large shifts in climate. While the Mayan population does not come close to the seven billion people inhabiting and modifying our planet today, their experience provides historical insights for us confront the present-day global changes we are setting in motion for the planet.

Brian Fagan: "The Great Warming"