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Climate and Civilization - the Maya Example

Topic: This activity uses authentic geophysical and geochemical data collected by the Ocean Drilling Program to examine climate in Central America during the recent past and explore the link between climate change and population growth and collapse among the Maya.

Developed by Katherine Ellins1, Jeri Rodgers1, and James Cano2

1.   Program Manager, The University of Texas at Austin Institute for Geophysics
1.   NSF GK-12 Fellow, The University of Texas at Austin Institute for Geophysics
2.   GMO Teacher, Earl Warren High School, San Antonio, TX

How to cite this work: Ellins, K.K., J. Rodgers, and J. Cano (2011), Climate and Civilization—The Maya Example, TXESS Revolution,, Date Accessed.


As a global society in the twenty-first century we worry about the fragility of the Earth’s present climate and the consequences of abrupt climate change on life, including humans and their cultures. This is a very real concern for two reasons. First, we know that most organisms live within a narrow range of possible climates on Earth and cannot adapt quickly to sudden changes in climate. Second, a growing body of research documents the impact of climate change on population growth and collapse, as well as the rise and fall of some civilizations. The experiences of past societies inform us about the potential consequences of climate change to our present society.

In 1996 the drillship JOIDES Resolution drilled offshore Venezuela in a deep ocean basin called the Cariaco Basin on Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 165. In this activity, learners use geochemical data from ODP Core 1002D in the Carioca Basin to study its archive of past climate in Mesoamerica and to test the hypothesis that drought may have contributed to collapse of the Mayan culture of Central America as suggested by Haug et al. (2003). 

Development, Research and Testing

Climate and Civilizationthe May Example was developed by Jeri Rodgers, a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellow, working in collaboration with Texas high school science teacher James Cano under NSF Grant No. 0139347. The activity was first tested with Mr. Cano’s students and subsequently implemented in the following teacher professional development workshops: (1) Revolution Teacher Workshops (2006), supported by the Texas Education Agency; and (2) PDA 3A (2009) of the TXESS Revolution Project, supported by the National Science Foundation Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences under NSF Grant No. 0703687. Teachers who attended PDA 3A rated the activity as shown in the table below. Kathy Ellins modified the activity in 2010, using feedback provided by TXESS Revolution teachers. The activity has been shared with more than 100 teachers in Texas at a variety of workshops and is part of the CLEAN Pathway teaching collection ( 

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the Texas Water Development Board.

Activity rating by # TXESS Revolution teachers in PDA 2A

  Rating: 1=Poor; 5 = Excellent; n = 42   Mean    
  Interesting   4.6
  Applicable to implementation of guided inquiry   4.7
  Applicable to use of in-class technology   4.3