Collaborative Research: Mapping the Materiality of Past Human Responses to Climate Change

Lead PI: Dr. Kristina G. Douglass , Morales, Erendira M Quintana

Unit Affiliation: Biology and Paleo Environment, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

September 2022 - August 2025
Africa ; Madagascar
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: As climate change intensifies, the study of human adaptation and response to climate disturbances has become critical. Sea level rise, warming oceans, and other climate-driven changes place millions of people in coastal communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. These communities must adapt to increasing food, energy, infrastructure, and water insecurity. Knowledge of past change and how to respond effectively to disturbance is a form of social memory passed down through generations. The loss of this social memory may severely limit people's capacity to adapt to changing conditions. This project investigates the influence of social memory on human responses to climate change at decadal to millennial time scales. This research clarifies the impacts of knowledge loss on human adaptive capacity. The results can inform policies that prioritize the preservation of intergenerational knowledge to mitigate the negative effects of climate change on human societies. This project supports the training of multiple graduate students and early career scholars from underserved communities and advances the careers of two principal investigators from underrepresented groups in science. The project is conducted in collaboration with stakeholder coastal communities.

This project hypothesizes that social memory helps communities adapt to climate change by increasing community knowledge about diverse livelihood strategies, thus enabling people to experiment and identify the strategies that work best. Archaeological, ethnohistorical, and paleoclimate data collected and analyzed during three seasons of collaborative research with stakeholder communities provide a record of past climate events and human responses. The combination of these records allows researchers to identify the impact of social memory on past responses to climate change and model how the loss of intergenerational knowledge will impact communities' capacity to adapt to future change. This work clarifies the role of information flows in human adaptation.

BROADER IMPACTS: Our project stems from a decade of collaboration and knowledge co-production with local, Indigenous and descendant (LID) communities in SW Madagascar. Our approach to knowledge co-production involves all team members and LID community partners in mutual knowledge sharing, theory building, project design and implementation, and training in multidisciplinary methods (Douglass et al., 2019b). In collaboration with LID communities on the front lines of climate change, we will record and transmit endangered knowledge that may be vital for autochthonous adaptation. The research can therefore inform policies that prioritize the preservation of LID knowledge to mitigate climate change impacts and generate predictions about the impacts of knowledge loss in the face of intensiFY20ing climate change. This project will support the training of underrepresented minority students and postdoctoral scholars and advance the careers of two BIPOC female PI’s who are currently pre-tenure assistant professors.


National Science Foundation




UC Santa Cruz