[Paper] The demise of Angkor: Systemic vulnerability of urban infrastructure to climatic variations

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A new paper in Science Advances by Penny et al. suggests that climatic fluctuations which stressed Angkor’s urban hydraulic system may have ultimately contributed to the city’s ‘demise’. The conclusions were reached from computer simulations modelling the effect of monsoon rains and droughts onto Angkor’s urban infrastructure.

Complex infrastructural networks provide critical services to cities but can be vulnerable to external stresses, including climatic variability. This vulnerability has also challenged past urban settlements, but its role in cases of historic urban demise has not been precisely documented. We transform archeological data from the medieval Cambodian city of Angkor into a numerical model that allows us to quantify topological damage to critical urban infrastructure resulting from climatic variability. Our model reveals unstable behavior in which extensive and cascading damage to infrastructure occurs in response to flooding within Angkor’s urban water management system. The likelihood and extent of the cascading failure abruptly grow with the magnitude of flooding relative to normal flows in the system. Our results support the hypothesis that systemic infrastructural vulnerability, coupled with abrupt climatic variation, contributed to the demise of the city. The factors behind Angkor’s demise are analogous to challenges faced by modern urban communities struggling with complex critical infrastructure.

Source: The demise of Angkor: Systemic vulnerability of urban infrastructure to climatic variations | Science Advances

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Environmental lessons from Angkor

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Another one up for climate change – analysis of tree ring data from Vietnam give us a better understanding of how climate change in the 14th and 15th centuries contributed to the collapse of Angkor in an open-access article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

cambodia, angkor wat front gate
photo credit: Alex Grechman

Climate as a contributing factor in the demise of Angkor, Cambodia

PNAS, 29 March 2010

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Angkor Wat doomed by drought, floods, suggests tree ring study
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Science Daily, 30 March 2010

Drought and flooding led to collapse of Angkor
LA Times, 31 March 2010

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Phnom Penh Post, 31 March 2010

Angkor lesson for cities

The Telegraph (Calcutta), 01 April 2010
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Borobudur threatened by climate change

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06 September 2007 (Reuters) – If you think Angkor falling victim to climate change was bad enough, today Reuters carries a story about how Borobudur is falling victim to the crazy weather as well. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!

creative commons photo by elbisreverri

Global warming threatens Indonesia’s Borobudur temple
By Sugita Katyal and Adhityani Arga

Like any historical monument, Indonesia’s magnificent Borobudur temple in central Java has suffered the ravages of time.

But now conservationists fear the world’s biggest Buddhist temple, topped with stupas and decorated with hundreds of reliefs depicting Buddhist thought and the life of Buddha, faces a new threat: climate change.

As global temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, the dark stone temple, which dates from the 9th century, could deteriorate faster than normal, Marsis Sutopo, head of the Borobudur Heritage Conservation Institute, told Reuters.

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Climate change, over-building doomed Khmer kingdom

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14 March 2007 (The Australian) – An addendum to the previous post, The Australia fleshes out how climate change affected Angkor. Details of the uncovered water management system are revealed.

Climate change, over-building doomed Khmer kingdom

Two enormous masonry structures discovered near Cambodia’s fabled temples of Angkor Wat provide rock hard evidence that the once powerful Khmer kingdom vanished because of over-building, environmental damage and climate change.
One of the newfound structures was a 40m by 80m spillway. The other was a 100m by 40m outlet channel that, like the spillway, was part of the elaborate water system that served the sprawling agricultural city of Angkor.
“There are considerable implications for our understanding of our own water management systems,” cautioned Sydney University archaeologist Roland Fletcher, head of the team that discovered the huge objects.

“These two structures demonstrate very high levels of hydraulic engineering,” added Associate Professor Fletcher, director of the Greater Angkor Project, a five-year collaboration between the university, French researchers and the Cambodian agency managing Angkor.

“The Khmer engineers used their expertise in masonry construction to build these structures that managed water flows for the entire city,” he claimed.

Related Books:
Uncovering Southeast Asia’s Past: Selected Papers from the 10th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists by E. A. Bacus, I. Glover and V. C. Pigott (Eds)

Angkor "killed by climate change"

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14 March 2007 (News.com.au) – This isn’t exactly new news, because I posted something about this last year. Nonetheless, the story seems timely over the recent hype of climate change from Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth.

City ‘killed by climate change’

Climate change was a key factor in the abandonment of Cambodia’s ancient city of Angkor, Australian archaeologists said today.

The city, home to more than 700,000 people and capital of the Khmer empire from about 900AD, was mysteriously abandoned about 500 years ago.

It has long been believed the Khmers deserted the city after a Thai army ransacked it, but University of Sydney archaeologists working at the site say a water crisis was the real reason it was left to crumble.

“It now appears the city was abandoned during the transition from the medieval warm period to the little ice age,” Associate Professor of Archaeology Roland Fletcher said.

Prof Fletcher said that to sustain a population of 750,000, the Khmers had a meticulously organised water management system.

But blockages found in two large structures that controlled the water system in central Angkor suggested the network had begun to break down late in the city’s history.

Prof Fletcher said the discoveries complemented previous field work that had led his team to conclude the city was abandoned when new monsoon patterns, brought about by climate change, had made the site unsustainable.

Related Books:
Uncovering Southeast Asia’s Past: Selected Papers from the 10th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists by E. A. Bacus, I. Glover and V. C. Pigott (Eds)