CAMBRIDGE-CONFERENCE DIGEST 24 March 1998
(1) BRITISH GOVERNMENT WILL RESPOND TO NEO THREAT ...WHEN NEED ARISES
Graham Richard Pointer <email@example.com>
(2) WHY "CRYING ASTEROID" IS RIGHT NEVERTHELESS
Duncan Steel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(3) THIRD MILLENNIUM BC CATASTROPHE AND CIVILISATION COLLAPSE
Bob Kobres <email@example.com>
(4) SORRY, BUT "TAKI" ISN'T ALF GARNET
Mavis E Wood <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(1) BRITISH GOVERNMENT WILL RESPOND TO NEO THREAT ...WHEN NEED ARISES
From: Graham Richard Pointer <email@example.com>
Dear Dr Peiser,
I saw this in The Scotsman today [24/03/98]. Does anyone have any
idea how our emergency services (or what's left of them) would
The Scotsman, 24 March 1998
THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS, THE GIANT ASTEROID WILL MISS US - OFFICIAL
WE ARE not, as had previously been feared, all going to die when an
asteroid a mile wide strikes the planet, the Government assured us
The science minister, John Battle, said the Government believes it is
unlikely that the huge asteroid 1997 XF11 will hit Earth, but he
added that we will be ready, anyway.
In a Commons written reply, he said Britain's emergency services and
planners "would respond if the need arose".
Earlier this month, scientists in the United States said that the
asteroid, which was discovered last December, could come within
26,000 miles of Earth.
The respected International Astronomical Union predicted that, if it did
strike Earth, it would happen at precisely 6:30pm on Thursday, 26
Scientists gave apocalyptic warnings that if the asteroid did collide
with the Earth it would do so at more than 17,000mph and explode with
the force of 100,000 Hiroshima nuclear bombs.
Although there was only a one in 1,000 chance of an impact, they warned
that a life-threatening collision could not be ruled out.
Since then, experts from the NASA space agency said they had located
pre-1997 images of the asteroid which had helped them to calculate a
more precise orbit.
Mr Battle said this indicated "that it will miss the Earth by a much
larger margin of 600,000 miles or about 2.5 times the distance of the
Moon". (c) 1998 The Scotsman
(2) WHY "CRYING ASTEROID" IS RIGHT NEVERTHELESS
From: Duncan Steel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Regarding the 1997 XF11, I've found it interesting how many people
have used the phrase 'crying wolf,' or some variant on that theme.
The implication they intend is obvious to most native English
speakers. The usage has been meant to support the view that false
alarms create complacency amongst the general populace.
That intention, however, is basically mis-guided, for the simple reason
that most of the general populace still don't realize that these
wolves are dangerous. Under that circumstance it is not possible to
'cry wolf.' Indeed I would say that it is necessary to have a few
close encounters with wolves (either directly, or maybe through
books, TV programs or movies), before one does realize the hazard
(3) THIRD MILLENNIUM BC CATASTROPHE AND CIVILISATION COLLAPSE
From: Bob Kobres <email@example.com>
Discover Magazine - March 1998
EMPIRES IN THE DUST
Some 4,000 years ago, a number of mighty Bronze Age cultures crumbled.
Were they done in by political strife and societal unrest? Or by a
change in the climate?
By Karen Wright
MESOPOTAMIA: CRADLE OF Civilization, the fertile breadbasket of western
Asia, a little slice of paradise between the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers. Today the swath of land north of the Persian Gulf is still
prime real estate. But several millennia ago Mesopotamia was absolutely
The Place to Be. There the visionary king Hammurabi ruled, and
Babylon's hanging gardens hung. There the written word, metalworking,
and bureaucracy were born. From the stately, rational organization of
Mesopotamia's urban centers, humanity began its inexorable march toward
strip malls and shrink-wrap and video poker bars and standing in line
at the DMV. What's more, the emergence of the city-state meant that we
no longer had to bow to the whims of nature. We rose above our abject
dependence on weather, tide, and tilth; we were safe in the arms of
empire. Isn't that what being civilized is all about?
Not if you ask Harvey Weiss. Weiss, professor of Near Eastern archeology
at Yale, has challenged one of the cherished notions of his profession:
that early civilizations-with their monuments and their grain reserves,
their texts and their taxes-were somehow immune to natural disaster. He
says he's found evidence of such disaster on a scale so grand it
spelled calamity for half a dozen Bronze Age cultures from the
Mediterranean to the Indus Valley -- including the vaunted vale of
Mesopotamia. Historians have long favored political and social
explanations for these collapses: disruptions in trade routes,
incompetent administrators, barbarian invasions. "Prehistoric
societies, simple agriculturists - they can be blown out by natural
forces," says Weiss. But the early civilizations of the Old World?
"It's not supposed to happen."
Yet happen it did, says Weiss, and unlike his predecessors, he's got
some data to back him up. The evidence comes from a merger of his own
archeological expertise with the field of paleoclimatology, the study
of climates past. His first case study concerns a series of events that
occurred more than 4,000 years ago in a region of northern Mesopotamia
called the Habur Plains. There, in the northeast corner of what is
present-day Syria, a network of urban centers arose in the middle of
the third millennium B.C. Sustained by highly productive organized
agriculture, the cities thrived. Then, around 2200 B.C., the
region's new urbanites abruptly left their homes and fled south,
abandoning the cities for centuries to come.
Weiss believes that the inhabitants fled an onslaught of wind and dust
kicked up by a drought that lasted 300 years. He also believes the
drought crippled the empire downriver, which had come to count on the
agricultural proceeds of the northern plains. Moreover, he contends,
the long dry spell wasn't just a local event; it was caused by a rapid,
region-wide climate change whose effects were felt by budding
civilizations as far west as the Aegean Sea and the Nile and as far
east as the Indus Valley. While the Mesopotamians were struggling with
their own drought-induced problems, he points out, neighboring
societies were collapsing as well: the Old Kingdom in Egypt, early
Bronze Age cities in Palestine, and the early Minoan civilization of
Crete. And in the Indus Valley, refugees fleeing drought may have
overwhelmed the cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. The troubles of
half a dozen Bronze Age societies, says Weiss, can be blamed on a
single event-and a natural disaster at that.
Weiss first presented this scenario in 1993, when soil analyses showed
that a period of severe dust storms accompanied the mysterious Habur
hiatus. "I was thinking you can't have a micro-region drought," he
recalls, "because that isn't how climate works. It's got to be much
bigger. And I said, 'Wait a minute, didn't I read about this in
graduate school? Weren't there those who, 30 years ago, had said
that drought conditions were probably the agency that accounts for
all these collapses that happened in contiguous regions?"' says
Weiss. "Back in the late sixties, we had read this stuff and
laughed our heads off about it."
In 1966, British archeologist James Mellaart had indeed blamed drought for
the downfalls of a whole spectrum of third-millennium civilizations,
from the early Bronze Age communities in Palestine to the pyramid
builders of Egypt's Old Kingdom. But when Mellaart first put forth this
idea, he didn't have much in the way of data to back him up. Weiss,
however, can point to new paleoclimate studies for his proof These
studies suggest that an abrupt, widespread change in the climate
of western Asia did in fact occur at 2200 B.C. Samples of old
ocean sediments from the Gulf of Oman, for example, show signs of
extreme drought just when Weiss's alleged exodus took place. A new
model of air-mass movement explains how subtle shifts in
atmospheric circulation could have scorched Mesopotamia as well as
points east, west, and south. And recent analyses of ice cores
from Greenland which offer the most detailed record of global
climate change reveal unusual climatic conditions at 2200 B.C.
that could well have brought drought to the region in question.
I've got some figures I can show you. figures always help," says
paleoclimatologist Peter de Menocal, swiveling his chair from
reporter to computer in his office at Columbia University's
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, just north of New York City. On
the monitor, de Menocal pulls up a graph derived from the research
project known as GISP2 (for Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2). GISP2
scientists, he explains, use chemical signals in ice cores to
reconstruct past climates. There are two kinds of naturally
occurring oxygen atoms, heavy and light, and they accumulate in
ice sheets in predictable ratios that vary with prevailing
temperatures. In a cool climate, for example, heavy oxygen
isotopes are less easily evaporated out of the ocean and
transported as snow or rain to northern landmasses like Greenland.
In a warm climate, however, more heavy oxygen isotopes will be
evaporated, and more deposited in the Greenland ice sheets.
By tracking oxygen-isotope ratios within the ice cores, the GISP2
graph reflects temperatures over Greenland for the past 15,000
years. Near the bottom of the graph, a black line squiggle wildly
until 11,700 years ago, when the last ice age ended and the
current warm era, the Holocene, began. The line then climbs
steadily for a few thousand years, wavering only modestly, until
7,000 years before the present. From then until now, global
temperatures appear relatively stable-"then until now" comprising,
of course, the entire span of human civilization.
"The archeological community-and actually segments of the
paleoclimate community-have viewed the Holocene as being
climatically stable," says de Menocal. "And so they imagine that
the whole drama of civilization's emergence took place on a level
playing field in terms of the environment."
Until he met Harvey Weiss, de Menocal wasn't much interested in
studying the Holocene; like most of his peers, he was more drawn
to the dynamic climate fluctuations that preceded it. In fact, the
Holocene had something of a bad rep among climatologists. "It was
thought of as kind of a boring time to study," says de Menocal.
"Like, why would you possibly want to? All the action is happening
20,000 years earlier."
Then a few years ago he read an account of Weiss's drought theory
and had an epiphany of sorts. It occurred to him that even the
smallest variations in climate could be interesting if they had
influenced the course of history. What if something was going on
in the Holocene after all? He looked up the 1993 paper in which
Weiss had laid out the evidence for the Habur hiatus and reported
the results of the soil analysis.
"I was pretty skeptical," says de Menocal. "I mean, what would you
expect if everyone left a town? It would get dusty. Especially in
the world's dustiest place. Big surprise."
Weiss, meanwhile, was getting a similar response from many of his
peers. But when he and de Menocal met at a conference in 1994,
they hit it off right away-largely because Weiss, too, was
dismayed at the paucity of his own evidence. "Peter was
immediately sensitive to my moaning about how we needed additional
data, different kinds of data," says Weiss. "And he immediately
understood where such data could be obtained."
De Menocal told Weiss that if a large-scale drought had in fact
occurred, it would have left a mark in the sediments of nearby
ocean floors-the floor of the Gulf of Oman, for example. Lying
approximately 700 miles southeast of ancient Mesopotamia, the gulf
would have caught any windblown dust that swept down from the
Tigris and Euphrates valleys. (The Persian Gulf is closer, but
because it's so shallow, its sediments get churned up, thereby
confusing their chronology.) And deMenocal just happened to know
some German scientists who had a sediment core from the Gulf of
Analysis of the gulf core is ongoing, but de Menocal has already
extracted enough information to confirm Weiss's suspicions. To
track dry spells in the sediments, he and his colleague Heidi
Cullen looked for dolomite, a mineral found in the mountains of
Iraq and Turkey and on the Mesopotamian floodplains that could
have been transported to the gulf only by wind. Most of the
Holocene section of the core consists of calcium carbonate
sediments typical of ocean bottoms.
"And then all of a sudden, at exactly 4,200 calendar years, there's this big
spike of dolomite," says deMenocal -----a fivefold increase that slowly
decays over about three centuries. The chemistry of the dolomite
dust matches that of the dolomite in the Mesopotamian mountains
and plains, verifying the mineral's source. And not only did de
Menocal and his colleagues figure out what happened, they may have
figured out how. Studies by Gerard Bond at Lamont-Doherty have
shown that the timing of the drought coincided with a cooling
period in the North Atlantic. According to a survey by Cullen of
current meteorological records, such cooling would have dried out
the Middle East and western Asia by creating a pressure gradient
that drew moisture to the north and away from the Mediterranean.
"The whole disruption, collapse bit, well, I just have to take
Harvey at his word," says de Menocal. "What I tried to do is bring
some good hard climate data to the problem." Why hasn't anybody
seen this signature of calamity before? Simple, says de Menocal.
"No one looked for it."
Weiss's first hints of climate-associated calamity came from a
survey of his principal excavation site, a buried city in
northeastern Syria called Tell Leilan. Tell Leilan (rhymes with
"Ceylon") was one of three major cities on the Habur Plains to be
taken over by the Akkadian Empire around 2300 B.C. The city
covered more than 200 acres topped by a haughty acropolis, and was
sustained by a tightly regulated system of rain-fed agriculture
that was co-opted and intensified by the imperialists from the
south. Weiss had asked Marie-Agnes Courty of the National Center
for Scientific Research in France to examine the ancient soils of
Tell Leilan to help him understand the agricultural development of
the region. She reported that a section dating from 2200 to 1900
B.C. showed evidence of severe drought, including an
eight-inch-thick layer of windblown sand and a marked absence of
In his own excavations of the same period, Weiss had already found
evidence of desertion: mud-brick walls that had fallen over clay
floors and were covered with, essentially, 300 years' worth of
compacted dust. And once he made the drought connection at Tell
Leilan, he began turning up clues to the catastrophe everywhere he
looked. In 1994, for example, Gerry Lemcke, a researcher at the
Swiss Technical University in Zurich, presented new analyses of
sediment cores taken from the bottom of Lake Van in Turkey, which
lies at the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The new
results indicated that the volume of water in the lake-which
corresponds to the amount of rainfall throughout western Asia
--declined abruptly 4,200 years ago. At the same time, the amount
of windblown dust in the lake increased fivefold.
Weiss came to believe that the effects of the drought reached
downriver to the heart of Mesopotamia, causing the collapse of the
Akkadian Empire. The collapse itself is undisputed: written records
describe how, soon after it had consolidated power, Akkad crumbled,
giving way to the Ur III dynasty in-when else?-2200 B.C. The cause of
this collapse has been the subject of considerable speculation. But
Weiss's studies of early civilizations have convinced him that their
economies-complex and progressive though they may have been-were still
fundamentally dependent on agricultural production. In fact, he notes,
one hallmark of any civilization is that it requires a fife-support
system of farming communities toiling away in the fields and turning
over the fruits of their labor to a central authority. The drought on
the Habur Plains could have weakened the Akkadian Empire by drastically
reducing agricultural revenues from that region. People fleeing the
drought moved south, where irrigation-fed agriculture was still
sustainable. For want of a raindrop, the kingdom was lost.
"Well, believe it or not, all my colleagues had not figured that
out," says Weiss. "They actually believed that somehow this empire
was based on bureaucracy, or holding on to trade routes, or
getting access to exotic mineral resources in Turkey." But the
drought itself is documented, Weiss says, in passages of cuneiform
texts. Images from a lengthy composition called the Curse of
Akkad, for example, include "large fields" that "produced no
grain" and "heavy clouds" that "did not rain." Scholars had
decided that these expressions were mere metaphor.
And many still stand by their interpretations. "I don't agree with
his literal reading of the Mesopotamian texts, and I think he has
exaggerated the extent of abandonment in this time period," says
Richard Zettler, curator of the Near East section at the University
of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in
Philadelphia. Zettler doesn't question the evidence for drought, but
he thinks Weiss has overplayed its implications. Although Tell Leilan
may well have been deserted during the putative hiatus, for example,
nearby cities on the Habur Plains show signs of continuing
occupation, he says. As for the Curse and other Mesopotamian passages
describing that period, says Zettler, "there are a lot of questions
on how to read these texts-how much of it is just literary license,
whatever. Even if there is a core of historical truth, it's hard to
determine what the core of truth is."
Instead of backing down in the face of such commentary, Weiss has
continuedto document his thesis. Echoing Mellaart, he points out that
2200 B.C. saw the nearly simultaneous collapses of half a dozen other
city-based civilizations-in Egypt, in Palestine, on Crete and the
Greek mainland, and in the Indus Valley. The collapses were caused by
the same drought, says Weiss, for the same reasons. But because
historians and archeologists look for internal rather than external
forces to explain civilizations in crisis, they don't communicate
among themselves, he says, and many aren't even aware of what's going
on next door, as it were.
"Very few people understand that there was a synchronous collapse
and probably drought conditions in both Egypt and Mesopotamia," let
alone the rest of the Old World, says Weiss.
It didn't help Weiss's extravagant claims for third-millennium cataclysm
that his alleged drought didn't appear in the GISP2 oxygen-isotope
record. The graph in de Menocal's office, for example, has no spikes
or dips or swerves at 2200 B.C., just a nice flat plateau. That graph
was drawn from an interpretation of the ice-core data. But according
to Paul Mayewski of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, who is
chief scientist of GISP2, there are plenty of reasons a drought in
western Asia might not make it into the oxygen isotope record in the
Greenland glacier. Greenland might be too far away to "feel" the
regional event, or the drought may have left a different kind of
chemical signature. Only a climatologist like Mayewski could explain
these reasons, however. And no one asked him to.
"As a consequence, a lot of people called Harvey Weiss and said,
'Well, the GISP2 record is the most highly resolved record of Holocene
climate in the world. And if it's not in there, you're wrong, Harvey,"'
says Mayewski. "I didn't realize that poor Harvey was being abused for
not existing in our record."
Fortunately Mayewski, like de Menocal, is a curious sort with
interests a bit broader than his own specialty. When he happened
upon Weiss's 1993 paper, he'd already lent a hand on a few
archeological projects, including one on the disappearance of Norse
colonies from Greenland in the mid-1300s. But he figured other
scientists had already looked for the Mesopotamian drought in the
climate record. When he finally met Weiss in 1996, he learned
otherwise. Mayewski began reanalyzing his core data with Weiss's
theory in mind, and he uncovered a whole new Holocene.
"We can definitely show from our records that the 2200 B.C. event is
unique," says Mayewski. "And what's much more exciting than that, we
can show that most of the major turning points in civilization in
western Asia also correlate with what we would say would be dry
events. We think that we have found a proxy for aridity in western
Earlier interpretations of the GISP2 data had measured a variety of
ions in ice cores that would reveal general information about climate
variability. To look for the 2200 B.C. drought in particular,
Mayewski used tests based on 2.5-year intervals in the climate record
instead of 50- to 100-year intervals. He also collected a broader set
of data that allowed him to reconstruct specific patterns of
atmospheric circulation-not only over land but over land and oceans.
When Mayewski focused on the movement of air masses over oceans, he
found that air transport from south to north in the
Atlantic-so-called meridional circulation-hit a significant winter
low some 4,200 years ago. Mayewski and de Menocal are studying how
this event relates to drought in western Asia.
"But it seems on the basis of the paleoclimatic data that there is no
doubt about the event at 2200 B.C.," says Weiss. "What the qualities
of this event were, and what the magnitude of this event was, that is
the current research frontier now."
Trouble is, even though the drought may seem like a sure thing, its
effects on Mesopotamia are still unproved, as Zettler points out.
They will remain controversial, Weiss admits, until archeologists
better understand the contributions of politics, agriculture, and
climate in the formation of ancient societies That mission grows more
urgent as more archeologists seem ready to grapple with models of
"climatic determinism." In the past few years, drought and flooding
have been cited in the demise of several New World civilizations,
including the Maya of Central America, the Anasazi of the American
Southwest, and the Moche and Tiwanaku of Peru and Bolivia.
"Until climatic conditions are quantified, it's going to be very
difficult to understand what the effects of climate
changes-particularly controversial, abrupt ones-were upon these
societies," says Weiss. The precise constellation of forces that
led to the collapse of Bronze Age cultures around 2200 B.C. will
probably be debated for a very long time. But paleoclimatology has
assured Mother Nature a place in that constellation. And the
notion that civilizations are immune to natural disaster may soon
be ancient history. (c) 1998 Discover Magazine
(4) SORRY, BUT "TAKI" ISN'T ALF GARNET
From: Mavis E Wood < firstname.lastname@example.org >
Dear Dr Peiser
I think that the article by Taki could be seen as an example of the grim
humour which is often found among the British. Usually those who come
from the North, as I do. I notice all the things which survive in his
vision are things which a Colonel Blimp character of the 1990's would
This kind of humour does unfortunately not travel well, Americans
never understand it. Still it was in a British newspaper and meant
for home consumption.
Dear Mrs Wood
I much appreciate your concerns. But do you really think that a
Jewish mensch living in Liverpool would miss a good joke? I am not a
fan of political correctness (though I do value gentlemanly conduct
and coutesy from time to time) and I would certainly share your
views if we were dealing with Alf Garnet of 'Til Death do us part'
fame. Yet Sunday Times's "Taki" is neither an Englishman nor is he
from the rainy North. What you've perceived to be good British
sarcasm is, I hesitate to say, Taki's honest political credo. That's
a joke, we all know that - but it makes you stop laughing.
With kindest regards,
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