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Climate stress will make cities more vulnerable

Built upon on a complex system of canals, water catchments and embankments, Angkor was once the largest city in the world, covering an area of approximately 1000km2. However, in the 15th Century it saw a massive population fall.

The multidisciplinary team of academics, researchers and students led by Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, Director of the Complex Systems Research Group, and Associate Professor Daniel Penny, Director of the Greater Angkor Project, found that the medieval city suffered external climate stress coupled with overloaded infrastructure within the canal system, which through in-depth mapping showed evidence of a vulnerability to catastrophic failures.

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Professor Prokopenko believes that the study is crucial to improving infrastructure in an era of increasing frequent extreme weather events which are creating new and pressing risks to urban environments.

He said, “Complex infrastructural networks provide critical services to cities but can be vulnerable to external stressors, including climatic variability.

“The cascading failure of critical infrastructure in Angkor which resulted from climate extremes re-emphasises the importance of building resilience into modern networks.”

Having worked on the Greater Angkor Project for 18 years, Professor Daniel Penny said, “For the first time, identifying a systemic vulnerability in Angkor’s infrastructural network has provided a mechanistic explanation for its demise, which comes with an important lesson for our contemporary urban environments.”

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Both of the researchers believe that the risks of network collapse have become more acute as urban conglomerations become larger, more complex, and have more people living in them.

“The water management infrastructure of Angkor has been developed over centuries, becoming very large, tightly interconnected, and dependent on older and ageing components. The change in the middle of the 14th Century C.E., from prolonged drought to particularly wet years, put too much stress on this complex network, making the water distribution unstable”, said Professor Prokopenko.

The factors behind Angkor’s demise are also comparable to the challenges faced by modern urban communities that are struggling with complex critical infrastructure and extreme weather events, such as floods and drought.

Professor Prokopenko continued, “We found that infrastructural networks in preindustrial urban environments in fact share very common topological and functional characteristics with modern complex networks.”

In complex systems, catastrophic responses and cascading failures, such as an abandonment of a city, can also be caused by very small changes or even a series of accumulated changes which cause a system or network to reach a ‘tipping point’.

There are several examples of tipping points faced by the modern world, such as the Amazon die-back, the 2016 South Australian power outage and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.

Professor Prokopenko believes the team’s research emphasises the need for governments and communities to focus on building resilience into modern urban networks, particularly in the face of a changing climate.

“Not only is it possible that catastrophic, infrastructural failure may also have occurred in the past, but the results from this research are critical to our community’s understanding of how climate and distributed resources affect the functioning of our cities and societies.

“If we don’t build resilience into our critical infrastructure, we may face severe and lasting disruptions to our civil systems, that can be intensified by external shocks and threaten our environment and economy”, he concluded.

UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY

Header Image Credit – Allie Caulfield

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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