Our historic vulnerability to climate change can inform the way we manage climate-induced disasters, according to newly-published research conceived in a series of SFI working groups.

Cross-disciplinary teams of archaeologists, historians, and geographers in the American Southwest and North Atlantic Islands 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.

“Social, political, and economic processes play substantial roles in determining the scale and kind of impacts of hazards,” the researchers write in the December 28 issue of PNAS. “Thus, disaster planning and relief should address vulnerabilities, rather than returning a system to its previous condition following a disaster event.”

Four pre-Columbian regions in arid to semi-arid deserts were compared to 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, like limitations on networks and mobility, were the primary contributors to vulnerability to food shortage.

"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 C. Nelson of Arizona State University. SFI’s transdisciplinary approach to science is especially useful in understanding complex coupled human-environment systems.

"Our ability to combine our knowledge has led to understandings of this issue that transcend a single region, climate type, people or tradition," Nelson says.

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. 

Read the paper in PNAS (December 28, 2015)

Read an article about the SFI working groups (May 27, 2014)