Landscape and climate

The Near-East, comprising Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus, known for successive civilizations since the Mid-Holocene to the Common Era, encountered rapid, long-term or high amplitude environmental changes that had discernible impacts on human groups. These impacts are visible  as changes in modes of subsistence, social organization and demography, which were manifested differently at different locations. In the last Millennium, the Near-East faced a series of hydroclimatic changes of multi-decadal to -centennial scales, known as the Medieval Warm Period-MWP (900-1300 AD), Little Ice Age-LIA (1300-1850 AD) and the Common Era warmth (CE). (Hydro-climatic variabilities are conditioned by external modes such as solar forcings  and bipolar see-saw mechanisms that operated in the Mediterranean. On a sub-regional scale, climate-proxy records and models show long-term decadal to multi-decadal variability in effective moisture during the warm/wet MWP and the cool/dry LIA in various sites across Turkey , the Levant and Iraqi-Kurdistan. However, hydrological variations are not coherent between sites and are mainly related to strong local geographical controls (topography) that impede/amplify the climatic/environmental variations. 

The island of Cyprus is located in the Levantine Basin, in the Eastern Mediterranean region (35°N; 33°E). It is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, with a surface of 9250 km2 . Three major physiographic units characterize the island. The Troodos Mountain is the main mountain range on the island, reaching 1951 m (Mt. Olympus) above sea-level – asl. The narrow belt of the Kyrenia Range along the northern coastline rises to 1023 m asl to the West (Kornos Peak), and lowers eastwards until the tip of the Karpas Peninsula. Both ranges are separated by the Mesaoria Plain (avg. 100 m asl), where the main cities (e.g. Larnaca, Famagusta, Nicosia) are located. The climate is considered as warm temperate in the western part and arid in its eastern side of the island, according to the Koppen−Geiger Climate Classification. Mean monthly temperatures range from 21°C along the coast to 15°C at the mountains. The climate is seasonal, with short, wet winters (October to March) and dry, hot summers. The annual precipitation reaches 600 mm along the Kyrenia Mountains and up to 1000 mm on the Troodos summit.

Indeed, the Atlantic westerlies, which bring moist winds associated with extra-tropical cyclones, form a series of sub-synoptic low-pressure systems along the Mediterranean basin. One of the most active low-pressure systems in winter is the Cyprus-Low  which drives moist air onshore, generating intense orographic rainfall. The orographic-driven rainfall from northern and north-western winds, is mainly focused over the Troodos and Kyrenia mountains while the Mesaoria plain stays drier. The vegetation cover and landscape are conditioned by the rainfall and temperature distribution with higher forest coverage density in mountainous areas and arable lands in the Mesaoria semi-arid plains. Therefore, the island of Cyprus consists a well-suited location to study the diversity of climate and environment and the effect of climate change during Medieval and CE periods on societies.

Previous analysis based on archives from the Ottoman rule and spanning the second half of the LIA period, showed that the ‘Little Ice Age’ period did exist in Cyprus with generally colder conditions and higher precipitation, floods, more snow and occasional short droughts from the 16th to the 19thc. In contrast, a higher intensity of droughts is reported in the 20th and 21stc. Other dendrochronological studies in the Troodos mountains reconstructed the annual summer precipitation and assessed the drought occurrence at low to mid-elevations for the last 250 years. These data provide a first insight into the local paleoclimate evolution, however, dendroclimatological records are naturally biased towards spring-summer reconstructed proxies (precipitation/temperature), whereas precipitation is mainly seasonal (autumn-winter-spring) in the Near-East.

So far, no natural archives extend the precipitation/temperature record further back in time on the island. Recently, a new potential natural archive, speleothems, was discovered in various caves along the Kyrenia range24,29 and coastal caves near Paphos. Speleothems are calcite deposits, the growth of which depend on water availability and is linked to precipitation amounts that are mostly concentrated during winter and spring. Exploring these speleothems in Cypriot caves would give complementary insights of winter/spring precipitation for the Medieval time period and allows extending the currently existing sparse and temporarily limited climate data set back to the late Holocene period.