A few years ago, Amy Hessl went into the forests of Mongolia to study wildfires.

But after a surprising discovery of 1,300-year-old wood that gives a back story to Genghis Khan’s empire-building, Hessl has found a new direction for her work.

She’s tracing the climate history of the Mongol Empire, gathering data that has shown that abundant rainfall may have been a huge factor in fueling Khan’s empire, the largest contiguous land empire in history. The scientific community has taken notice, including a lengthy feature in the latest issue of Science magazine.

Hessl, associate professor of geography at West Virginia University, also made news in Scientific American. National Geographic is documenting her work. And now the National Science Foundation has granted her nearly $1.4 million over three years to continue her discovery of ancient climate, a climate that may have been an unusual period in weather history. (Click on the Science cover on the left to read the latest article.)


Her discovery was as rare as finding the slimmest of needles in a continental-sized haystack. And now the professor who as a child dreamt of a career digging up artifacts is in her element.

“It’s by far the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in my research,” Hessl said.

She doesn’t want to downplay the force of Khan’s personality, but she thinks he had an ally in climate that has up until now gone unacknowledged. Climate set the table and the Mongols decided to attend the banquet, she says.

“It’s been really fun trying to theorize that interaction between people and their environment, trying to find a way to explain that quantitatively,” she said. “The route I chose to go with that was looking at the energy available to the Mongols at the time.”

Follow WVU’s continuing coverage of Amy’s story in a multi-part series by clicking here

Hessl and her team are poring over historical records and planning more trips back to the Orkhon Valley, the seat of Khan’s empire where the initial discovery of ancient wood was made in 2010. The core of the team’s research is gathering climate record data from examining the tree rings in the slices of wood they’ve collected and will continue to collect.

While rain may have helped the empire grow to a massive size, the researchers are exploring the possibility that drought and poor water quality related to rapid urbanization and climate change may have contributed to the empire’s decline.

Hessl’s work is only continuing to grow an audience. On Thursday (Sept. 27), Science Magazine brought her story to nearly 130,000 mailboxes worldwide and to its more than 3.6 million monthly online visitors.

A reporter with the magazine joined Hessl and her team in Mongolia this summer as they traveled over land from the city to the plains and collected wood samples in an ancient lava field. The Science story gives an in-depth look into Hessl’s work and quotes an expert as saying that this research could fill a gap in understanding the climate record for Asia.

” ... Favorable climate and abundant energy would have helped the ruler consolidate his power,” the Science article states. “That intriguing possibility could reshape our understanding of the seeds of empire – in Mongolia and beyond.”



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