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Dry spells spelled trouble in ancient China
Date:11/6/2008

Chinese history is replete with the rise and fall of dynasties, but researchers now have identified a natural phenomenon that may have been the last straw for some of them: a weakening of the summer Asian Monsoons.

Such weakening accompanied the fall of three dynasties and now could be lessening precipitation in northern China.

Results of the study, led by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Lanzhou University in China, appear in this week's issue of the journal Science.

The work rests on climate records preserved in the layers of stone in a 118-millimeter-long stalagmite found in Wanxiang Cave in Gansu Province, China.

By measuring amounts of the elements uranium and thorium throughout the stalagmite, the researchers could tell the date each layer was formed. And by analyzing the "signatures" of two forms of oxygen in the stalagmite, they could match amounts of rainfall--a measure of summer monsoon strength--to those dates.

The stalagmite was formed over 1,810 years; stone at its base dates from A.D. 190, and stone at its tip was laid down in A.D. 2003, the year the stalagmite was collected.

"It was unexpected that a record of surface weather would be preserved in underground cave deposits," said David Verardo, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Paleoclimatology Program, which funded the research. "These results illustrate the promise of paleoclimate science to look beyond the obvious and see new possibilities."

"Summer monsoon winds originate in the Indian Ocean and sweep into China," said Hai Cheng, author of the paper and a scientist at the University of Minnesota. "When the summer monsoon is stronger, it pushes farther northwest into China."

These moisture-laden winds bring rain necessary for cultivating rice. But when the monsoon is weak, the rains stall farther south and east, depriving northern and western parts of China of summer rains.

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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-7734
National Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert

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