A new report co-authored by a West Virginia University researcher confirms that the weather was very much on Genghis Khan’s side as he expanded his empire and that current drought conditions in Mongolia could have serious consequences.

Amy Hessl, professor of geography at WVU, is one of the authors of “Pluvials, Droughts, the Mongol Empire, and Modern Mongolia,” which will appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More detail about Hessl’s research, and videos chronicling her work, are available here

This groundbreaking research appeared in The Guardian, The Economist, Scientific American, Science, and National Geographic outlets after it was first announced. This paper is the first official academic record of the research that shows astonishing and, until now, counter-intuitive data on a 1,112-year period at the site of the world’s largest contiguous land empire.

The magnitude of the finding hinges on the team’s discovery of wood that provides an extensive climate record of the period through tree rings. The tree rings’ tale of ebbs and flows in water availability show that Genghis Khan took power during a severe drought, but that the rapid expansion of his empire coincided with the wettest period for the region during the last millennium.

Though political realities would have also featured into Genghis Khan’s power grab, the regional climate at the time appeared to support the empire’s expansion, according to the findings. The climate provided literal horsepower as his armies and their horses fed off the fertile land.

“Such a strong and unified center [under Genghis Khan] would have required a concentration of resources that only higher productivity could have sustained in a land in which extensive pastoral production does not normally provide surplus resources,” the report states.

While the ramifications for history are significant, so are those for today. The report’s authors posit that human-caused warming has “exacerbated” the drought in central Mongolia, similar to a drought event that coincided with Genghis Khan’s rise to power.

“If future warming overwhelms increased precipitation, episodic ‘heat droughts’ and their social, economic, and political consequences will likely become more common in Mongolia and Inner Asia,” according to the report.

Hessl co-authored the report with Neil Pederson, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia University; Nachin Baatarbileg of the National University of Mongolia; Kevin Anchukaitis of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Nicola Di Cosmo with the Institute for Advanced Study.



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