Domino effect of climate change over two millennia in ancient China’s Hexi Corridor


Climate change, population growth and extreme events can trigger social crises and instability. The processes that dominate a society’s emergence, resilience and collapse, and the complex interactions among such processes, operating within a small region, at a multicentury or even larger time scale, remain to be identified. The causes or driving forces responsible for societal changes must be identified for a plausible explanation. Historical records provide unique examples of societies that have failed to develop buffers and strategic resilience against climate change and natural variability. Using a wide range of observations from China’s Hexi Corridor, the complex interactive processes linking climate change with human society over the past two millennia were investigated. This paper proposes a domino effect resulting from a society’s failure to respond to climate change in which individual small problems create a greater challenge over long time spans. Building resilience against the impacts of climate change requires a deep understanding of social and environmental feedbacks to create a reliable buffer against future changes. This study offers lessons learned from the past 2,000 years that remain relevant today, given the projected changes in climate and extreme events.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: The relationship between environmental and socioeconomic variables (temperature, tree-ring width, grain yield, grain price and wages).
Fig. 2: Response of indicators of social crisis (frequency of social disturbances, famine, migration, conflict and plague) to inherent changes in the price of grain and subsequent impacts on human lifespan.
Fig. 3: A conceptual model of the domino effect of climatic change seen in the causality sequences developed for the Hexi Corridor from ad 2 to 1988.

Data availability

The data on climate change, biological productivity and socioeconomy that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The source codes of the Granger causality and regression analysis used in this study can be obtained from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


  1. 1.

    Hsiang, S. M. & Meng, K. C. Reconciling disagreement over climate–conflict results in Africa. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 2100–2103 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Hsiang, S. M., Meng, K. C. & Cane, M. A. Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate. Nature 476, 438–441 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    McMichael, A. J. Insights from past millennia into climatic impacts on human health and survival. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 4730–4737 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Zhang, P. Z. et al. A test of climate, sun, and culture relationships from an 1810-year Chinese cave record. Science 322, 940–942 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Büntgen, U. et al. 2500 years of European climate variability and human susceptibility. Science 331, 578–582 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Zhang, D. D., Brecke, P., Lee, H. F., He, Y. Q. & Zhang, J. Global climate change, war, and population decline in recent human history. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 19214–19219 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Carleton, T. A. & Hsiang, S. M. Social and economic impacts of climate. Science 353, aad9837 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Burke, M. B., Miguel, E., Satyanath, S., Dykema, J. A. & Lobell, D. B. Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 20670–20674 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Weiss, H. & Bradley, R. S. What drives societal collapse? Science 291, 609–610 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Yin, J., Su, Y. & Fang, X. Climate change and social vicissitudes in China over the past two millennia. Quat. Res. 86, 133–143 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Ge, Q. S., Hao, Z., Zheng, J. & Shao, X. Temperature changes over the past 2000 yr in China and comparison with the Northern Hemisphere. Clim. Past 9, 1153–1160 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Butzer, K. W. & Endfield, G. H. Critical perspectives on historical collapse. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 3628–3631 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Rosen, A. M. & Rivera-Collazo, I. Climate change, adaptive cycles, and the persistence of foraging economies during the late Pleistocene/Holocene transition in the Levant. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 3640–3645 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Butzer, K. W. Collapse, environment, and society. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 3632–3639 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Lee, H. F. & Zhang, D. D. Changes in climate and secular population cycles in China, 1000 CE to 1911. Clim. Res. 42, 235–246 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Piao, S. L. et al. The impacts of climate change on water resources and agriculture in China. Nature 467, 43–51 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Scheffran, J., Brzoska, M., Kominek, J., Link, P. M. & Schilling, J. Climate change and violent conflict. Science 336, 869–871 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Yang, L. et al. Identifying separate impacts of climate and land use/cover change on hydrological process in upper stream of Heihe River, Northwest China. Hydrol. Process. 31, 1100–1112 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Zhu, L. et al. Climate change on the Tibetan Plateau in response to shifting atmospheric circulation since the LGM. Sci. Rep. 5, 13318 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Zhang, Y., Fu, G., Sun, B., Zhang, S. & Men, B. Simulation and classification of the impacts of projected climate change on flow regimes in the arid Hexi Corridor of Northwest China. J. Geophys. Res. 120, 7429–7453 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Pei, Q. & Zhang, D. D. Long-term relationship between climate change and nomadic migration in historical China. Ecol. Soc. 19, 68 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Pei, Q., Zhang, D. D. & Lee, F. Evaluating the effectiveness of agricultural adaptation to climate change in preindustrial society. Asian Geographer 32, 85–98 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Akaike, H. A new look at the statistical model identification. IEEE Trans. Autom. Control 19, 716–723 (1974).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Huning, L. & AghaKouchak, A. Mountain snowpack response to different levels of warming. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 10932–10937 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Zhang, D. D. et al. The causality analysis of climate change and large-scale human crisis. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 17296–17301 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Malthus T. R. An Essay on the Principle of Population and a Summary View of the Principle of Population (ed. Flew, A.) 114–115 (Penguin, 1970).

  27. 27.

    Santayana, G. The Life of Reason Vol. 2, 334–340 (Dover Publications, 1906).

  28. 28.

    Diamond, J. M. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive. Reis 13, 249–250 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Acheson, J. M. Institutional failure in resource management. Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 35, 117–134 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Kiem, A. S. & Austin, E. K. Drought and the future of rural communities: opportunities and challenges for climate change adaptation in regional Victoria, Australia. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 1307–1316 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Crutzen, P. J. Geology of mankind. Nature 415, 23 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Barnosky, A. D. et al. Merging paleobiology with conservation biology to guide the future of terrestrial ecosystems. Science 355, aah4787 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    IPCC Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report (eds Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R. K. & Meyer L. A.) (IPCC, 2014).

  34. 34.

    Ju, H., van der Velde, M., Lin, E., Xiong, W. & Li, Y. The impacts of climate change on agricultural production systems in China. Clim. Change 120, 313–324 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Hsiang, S. M., Burke, M. & Miguel, E. Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict. Science 341, 1235367 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Granger, C. W. J. Some recent development in a concept of causality. J. Econometr. 39, 199–211 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (grant no. 2017YFC0404305), the Major Program of the Natural Science Foundation of Gansu province, China (grant no. 18JR4RA002) and CAS ‘Light of West China’ Program. We thank G. Hart of Montréal, Canada, for his help in writing this paper.

Author information




Q.F. and L.Y. designed and performed the research. Q.F., L.Y., Z.Y., J.S., X.W., M.Z. and R.C.D. analysed the data. Q.F., L.Y., W.L., A.A., J.F.A., R.S. and S.C. wrote the paper. L.Y., R.C.D. and Z.Y. prepared the figures. All authors reviewed the manuscript and approved it for submission.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Qi Feng or Linshan Yang.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–9 and Tables 1–4.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Feng, Q., Yang, L., Deo, R.C. et al. Domino effect of climate change over two millennia in ancient China’s Hexi Corridor. Nat Sustain 2, 957–961 (2019).

Download citation


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing