2700 years of Mediterranean environmental change in central Italy: Asynthesis of sedimentary and cultural records to interpret past impacts of climate on society

Scott A. Mensing, Irene Tunno, Leonardo Sagnotti, Fabio Florindo, Paula Noble, Claire Archer, Susan Zimmerman, Francisco Javier Pavón-Carrasco, Gabriele Cifani, Susanna Passigli, Gianluca Piovesan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Abrupt climate change in the past is thought to have disrupted societies by accelerating environmental degradation, potentially leading to cultural collapse. Linking climate change directly to societal disruption is challenging because socioeconomic factors also play a large role, with climate being secondary or sometimes inconsequential. Combining paleolimnologic, historical, and archaeological methods provides for a more secure basis for interpreting the past impacts of climate on society. We present pollen, non-pollen palynomorph, geochemical, paleomagnetic and sedimentary data from a high-resolution 2700yr lake sediment core from central Italy and compare these data with local historical documents and archeological surveys to reconstruct a record of environmental change in relation to socioeconomic history and climatic fluctuations. Here we document cases in which environmental change is strongly linked to changes in local land management practices in the absence of clear climatic change, as well as examples when climate change appears to have been a strong catalyst that resulted in significant environmental change that impacted local communities. During the Imperial Roman period, despite a long period of stable, mild climate, and a large urban population in nearby Rome, our site shows only limited evidence for environmental degradation. Warm and mild climate during the Medieval Warm period, on the other hand, led to widespread deforestation and erosion. The ability of the Romans to utilize imported resources through an extensive trade network may have allowed for preservation of the environment near the Roman capital, whereas during medieval time, the need to rely on local resources led to environmental degradation. Cool wet climate during the Little Ice Age led to a breakdown in local land use practices, widespread land abandonment and rapid reforestation. Our results present a high-resolution regional case study that explores the effect of climate change on society for an under-documented region of Europe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)72-94
Number of pages23
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - May 5 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are grateful to the many people who helped make this study possible, Microtephra analysis was performed by Paola Del Carlo, Antonella Bertagnini, Alessio di Roberto of INGV, Pisa, Italy. Cores were processed at LACORE, Minneapolis with assistance from Anders Noren, Christina Brady, Amy Mybro and Jessica Heck. Fig. 1 was created by Emanuele Ziaco. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation ( GSS-1228126 ) to Mensing and Noble, international travel awards and sabbatical leave from the University of Nevada , Reno to Mensing, the Sabina Universitas and Province of Rieti . We are grateful to Luigi Sandoletti for technical support, Giulia Sandoletti for laboratory assistance, Emanuele Presutti Saba, Emanuele Ziaco, and Gianluca Bonavigo for field and coring assistance, and DAFNE Università degli Studi della Tuscia for field transportation. Paolo Bellezza, Maurizio Sterpi at the Riserva Naturale dei Laghi Lungo e Ripasottile provided housing at the field site and boat access to Lago Lungo. Stefano Pizetti helped arrange housing in Viterbo for U.S. participants. Comments from an anonymous reviewer significantly improved the manuscript. This is LLNL-JRNL-665781.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Elsevier Ltd.

Copyright 2015 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Central italy
  • Geochemistry
  • Historical documents
  • Late holocene
  • Mediterranean environments
  • Paleoenvironmental change
  • Paleomagnetism
  • Pollen
  • Roman empire
  • Society and climate


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