Research ArticleANTHROPOLOGY

The demise of Angkor: Systemic vulnerability of urban infrastructure to climatic variations

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Science Advances  17 Oct 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 10, eaau4029
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau4029

Abstract

Complex infrastructural networks provide critical services to cities but can be vulnerable to external stresses, including climatic variability. This vulnerability has also challenged past urban settlements, but its role in cases of historic urban demise has not been precisely documented. We transform archeological data from the medieval Cambodian city of Angkor into a numerical model that allows us to quantify topological damage to critical urban infrastructure resulting from climatic variability. Our model reveals unstable behavior in which extensive and cascading damage to infrastructure occurs in response to flooding within Angkor’s urban water management system. The likelihood and extent of the cascading failure abruptly grow with the magnitude of flooding relative to normal flows in the system. Our results support the hypothesis that systemic infrastructural vulnerability, coupled with abrupt climatic variation, contributed to the demise of the city. The factors behind Angkor’s demise are analogous to challenges faced by modern urban communities struggling with complex critical infrastructure.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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