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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

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Correspondence to Qi Feng or Linshan Yang.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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

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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).

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