Colorado is currently in a 1200 year drought (the worst since 800 CE). But, in the 100s CE, around the time that the Roman Empire was at its peak and Christianity was in a formative period, there was a far more severe drought than the current one in the Colorado River basin or the one experienced around 800 CE.
The Colorado River is in an extremely severe drought and has been for the last 22 years. To better understand this drought, researchers looked at the drought history within the Colorado River Basin. Previous studies have gone back 1,200 years, but this paper goes back 2,000 years. The findings, using paleo hydrology, show that there was an even more severe drought in the Colorado River Basin in the second century. . . . . The research finds that compared to the current 22-year drought in the Colorado River, with only 84% of the average water flow, the water flow during a 22-year period in the second century was much lower, just 68% of the average water flow.
AbstractThe ongoing 22-year drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB) has been extremely severe, even in the context of the longest available tree-ring reconstruction of annual flow at Lees Ferry, Arizona, dating back to 762 CE.
While many southwestern drought assessments have been limited to the past 1,200 years, longer paleorecords of moisture variability do exist for the UCRB. Here, gridded drought-atlas data in the UCRB domain along with naturalized streamflow data from the instrumental period (1906–2021) are used in a K-nearest neighbor nonparametric algorithm to develop a streamflow reconstruction for the Lees Ferry gage starting in 1 CE.
The reconstruction reveals a second-century drought unmatched in severity by the current drought or by well-documented medieval period droughts in the UCRB. Although data are sparse, analysis of individual long tree-ring records and other paleoclimatic data also support the occurrence of an exceptional second-century drought.
Key PointsA new tree-ring based ensemble streamflow reconstruction spanning the last two millennia was developed for the Colorado RiverThe new reconstruction reveals a second-century drought unmatched in severity by any past droughts in the Upper Colorado River BasinThe ongoing 22-year period of low Colorado River streamflow is a rare event, but is not the most severe drought in the past 2,000 yearsPlain Language SummaryThe Colorado River drought we currently are experiencing is severe in the context of the 116-year gage record (1906–2021), but how severe is it in a long-term context?
Existing tree-ring based reconstructions of Colorado River streamflow have suggested that the 22-year period 2000–2021 could be the worst drought in the southwestern United States in 1,200 years. The purpose of this study is to extend the Colorado River reconstruction back 2,000 years and to evaluate the current drought in a long-term context.
We find that an even more extreme drought occurred and persisted over much of the second century. Data are sparse this far back in time, but evidence from both tree-ring data and paleoclimate data from lakes, bogs, and caves supports the existence and severity of this drought in the context of the last two millennia.
Additional work is needed to learn more about this drought and its causes, but we now know that drought more persistent than even the well-documented medieval period droughts occurred in the past, expanding our understanding of the range of natural climate variability.
The body text goes on to explain that:
Other paleoclimatic data provide additional support for second-century drought (e.g., Routson et al., 2021; Shuman et al., 2018). A collection of 37 non-tree-ring hydroclimate records (e.g., pollen, diatoms, etc.) was assessed for evidence of the second-century drought. Resolution and age control limit these records' ability to faithfully record events that occurred within multidecadal timescales. However, non-tree-ring hydroclimate records are useful because they are not limited by detrending and short segment lengths inherent in tree-ring chronologies (Cook et al., 1995). This collection of lower resolution records shows dry conditions occurred during the second century over a spatial domain broadly consistent with the tree-ring based evidence. Furthermore, these records show a gradual pattern toward wetter conditions over the last two millennia, with the driest conditions occurring in the early portion of the first millennium, coincident with the second century. This period also coincides with the higher frequency of longer and more severe droughts over the first millennium in the tree-ring records.
CommunitiesThe primary dwellings of this era were round or circular pit-houses that were built on open land and partially below the ground surface. The entrance to the house faced east or south. Logs and rocks were often used for the dwellings foundation. The building materials for the walls could include stacked logs, jacal or poles and brush. In the center of the dwelling was a fire pit.Some early people built their dwellings within the natural protection of rock shelters, especially during the beginning of this period.
AgricultureThe Basketmaker II people raised maize and squash, the first people of the northern American southwest to do so, which required them to be located near sources of water and good soil. Carbon isotope analysis of bones of Archaic people compared to Basketmakers indicates that the Basketmakers' diet was rich in maize.
Material goodsExcavated items from this period include:
* good quality, tightly woven baskets* woven yucca bags, sandals and blankets* robes and blankets made of feather and fur* stone projectile points, scrapers and knives* cord made from yucca and cedar bark* oval-shaped cradles* stone pipes
About AD 200, the middle of this period, there was some experimentation with a crude form of brown pottery.
- 200–1450: Hohokam cultures flourish in Arizona and north Mexico
- 400: Cultivation of maize (corn) begins in the American Southeastern Woodlands and soon reaches the Northeastern Woodlands. Originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, maize transforms the Eastern Agricultural Complex.
- 400: Ancestral Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest weave extraordinarily long nets for trapping small animals and make yucca fibers into large sacks and bags.
- 500: Late Basketmaker II Era phase of Ancestral Pueblo culture diminishes in the American Southwest.
- 700: Basketmaker III Era of the American Southwest evolve into the early Pueblo culture.
- 755±65 – 890±65: likely dates of the Blythe Geoglyphs being sculpted by ancestral Quechan and Mojave peoples in the Colorado Desert, California
- 700–800: Ancestral Pueblo people of the American Southwest or Oasisamerica transition from pit houses to multi-story adobe and stone apartments called pueblos.
- 875: Patayan people begin farming along the Colorado River valley in western Arizona and eastern California.
- 900: Ancestral Pueblo culture dominates much of the American Southwest.
- 900: American Southwestern tribes trade with Indigenous peoples of Mexico to obtain copper bells cast through the lost-wax technique.
- 915 (exact date): Construction begins at Pueblo Bonito, the largest Ancestral Pueblo Great House.
- 900–1150: Pueblo II Era in the American Southwest
- 1000–1200: Acoma Pueblo and Old Oraibi are established, and become the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States
- 1100: Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon reaches apex in size at 800 rooms
- 1100: Hohokam culture reaches apex in present-day Arizona
- 1150–1350: Pueblo III Era in the American Southwest
Pioneer/Formative period (AD 1–750)As farmers of corn and beans, early Hohokam founded a series of small villages along the middle Gila River. The communities were located near arable land, and dry farming was common early in this period. Water wells, usually less than 10 feet (3 m) deep, were dug for domestic water supplies. Early Hohokam homes were built of branches that were bent, covered with twigs or reeds and heavily applied mud, and other available materials.
Crop, agricultural skill, and cultural refinements increased between AD 300 and 500 as the Hohokam acquired a new group of cultivated plants, presumably from trade with peoples in the area of modern Mexico. These acquisitions included cotton, tepary bean, sieva and jack beans, cushaw and warty squash, and southwestern pigweed. Agave species had been gathered for food and fiber for thousands of years by southwestern peoples, and around 600, the Hohokam began cultivating agave, particularly Agave murpheyi ("Hohokam agave"), on large areas of rocky, dry ground. Agave became a major food source for the Hohokam to augment the food grown in irrigated areas.
Engineering improved access to river water and the inhabitants excavated canals for irrigation.
Ceramics appeared shortly before AD 300, with pots of unembellished brown used for storage and cooking, and as containers for cremated remains. Materials produced for ritual use included fired clay human and animal figures and incense burners.
The Supplemental Information discusses the Second Century drought in the American Southwest further:
The 2nd century drought in this study's Colorado River reconstruction occurs in the earliest part of the time span identified using tree-ring data for the Upper Colorado River basin region. A total of 11 tree-ring chronologies in or near the Upper Colorado River basin extend back into the 2nd century. Data from most of these sites were included in the tree-ring network used to reconstruct PDSI. Species range from high elevation bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata) to relatively low-elevation pinyon (Pinus edulis).
In order to evaluate the 2nd century drought at these sites, tree-ring chronologies were standardized, converted to z-scores, and then smoothed with a 25-year running average. Time series plots show a period of severe drought occurring at most of these sites over the middle to the end of the 2nd century. In some cases, this drought is not the most severe and sustained in the record, but it is often one of the worst.
The 2nd century drought is particularly notable at the Summitville (Routson et al., 2011), Harmon Canyon (Knight et al., 2010), and Mammoth creek sites. Based on these sites, the heart of this drought appears to be centered over Utah and Colorado. This pattern is generally reflected in the gridded PDSI values averaged over the years 120–180 CE (Cook et al., 2010).
From a regional perspective, the severity of the 2nd century drought does stand out in the context of the past 2,000 years. A composite of the 11 long tree-ring records, again 7 based on standardized chronologies (z-scores), smoothed with a 25-year moving average, was generated. Bootstrapping was used to test how subsets of the chronologies might influence the composite, particularly since several chronologies showed the 2nd century to be an extremely severe event. In this process, the pool of 11 smoothed records was randomly sampled with replacement. These randomly sampled smooth records were averaged together to create a composite. This step was repeated 1,000 times, creating 1,000 composites. The median of the composites clearly shows the 2nd century to be the worst drought in this region.
Chronology development typically includes all samples available for a site, regardless of the start and end date of each sample. In order to determine the number of trees that actually provide evidence for the 2nd century drought, we examined the tree-ring measurement series within each of the chronologies. There are approximately 63 individual tree samples from the 11 sites that include at least 4 years in the 2nd century. Numbers of trees were estimated from the sample codes (typically, a common tree number is used with differentiation of the within-tree cores). All of these samples come from dead trees, except for two trees at the Red Canyon site. While the number of samples is not large, these data provide evidence that site chronologies are reflecting tree-growth patterns from multiple trees (3-13) at these sites. There is clear evidence in the tree-ring data, sparse as it is, for the 2nd century drought. However, it is difficult to precisely assess the severity and duration of this drought relative to other severe, sustained droughts because only a small subset of chronologies in the Upper Colorado River basin extend to the 2nd century.
Furthermore, in the subset of chronologies that do extend to the 2nd century drought, reductions in sample depth (fewer samples during the 2nd century) make direct comparisons with other events challenging.
Finally, very few of the samples that reflect the 2nd century drought extend through other droughts. There are only two series (both from Summitville) that extend from the 2nd century through the 1100s, which contains the most severe, sustained drought in the Colorado River in the past 12 centuries (Meko et al., 2007). There also are three series from Red Canyon, but this site is the one site in this set that does not reflect the 2nd century drought.
Other paleoclimatic data are available that have the potential to confirm the existence of the 2nd century drought. We evaluated hydroclimatic records published in two recent syntheses efforts for western North America (Routson et al., 2021; Shuman et al., 2018). Records from those studies were screened using the following criteria:
1) Are within the geographic region 30°N–50°N, and 95°W–125°W.
2) Are interpreted as hydroclimate variables (precipitation or precipitation minus evaporation).
3) Span at least 1,000 years during the last 2,000 years.
4) Have a median sample resolution of 100 years.
5) Include data points during the 2nd century CE.
6) Have a minimum of 2 age control points in the last 2,000 years.
Thirty-seven (37) individual records met the screening criteria. Hydroclimate anomalies during the 2nd century CE were identified by truncated records to span the last 2,000 years, then averaging data points into 20-year windows. The 20-year binned records then were normalized by their mean and standard deviation (resulting in zscores). Anomalies were calculated as the average of the binned zscores during the 2nd century. The anomalies plotted show a region that includes the UCRB that was generally dry during the 2nd century. Wetter conditions in the Great Basin also are consistent with tree-ring data (Hughes & Graumlich, 1996). A composite index of the 37 hydroclimate records was developed, generated over 1,000 iterations, and sampling with replacement over each iteration. Sampling with replacement helps to quantify the impact of the record selection. The final composite, the median of the ensemble, shows a period of negative anomalies centered around 100 CE. However, there are many caveats around using these kinds of records for evaluating relatively short events. The records were mostly generated to characterize Holocene timescales, and the age control is not sufficient to confidently put data points within 100-year windows.
Given this evidence, what is the bottom line?
The tree-ring data analyzed here are essentially the same data that are the basis for the Colorado River reconstruction developed in this study, so they do not provide independent verification of this drought. However, tree-ring chronologies enter the reconstruction via gridded PDSI, which does not readily allow an assessment of the footprint of 2nd century drought on individual trees and chronologies. With a sparse tree-ring network in the 2nd century, it is especially important to appreciate where these trees were located, and which contributed to what we have inferred as a singularly severe drought. The extended analyses here provide some insights on the numbers of records that have the potential to document this drought. While not a large number, the samples come from 11 different sites, with most documenting the 2nd century as at least one of the most severe droughts in the past 2,000 years. The three sites that most strongly document the 2nd century drought are from three different tree species and are spatially distant (Harmon Canyon, Mammoth Creek, and Summitville), indicating that the severity is not site- or species-specific. Independent paleoclimate proxy records support the occurrence of this drought, although the dating uncertainty make it challenging to determine temporal concurrence.
These data suggest that this period of drought may have been centered on a region that includes the UCRB. A challenging aspect of this evaluation is determining the relative severity of this drought in the context of the past 2,000 years. Without more tree-ring data, and particularly series from trees that lived through both the 2nd century and medieval period droughts, there remains uncertainty regarding drought severity.