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Colonists Brought Death, Disease and Climate Change to the Americas, Study Finds

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At the same time, carbon stored on land increased and carbon dioxide in the air decreased, supporting the hypothesis that colonization may have been to blame.

The approach is imperfect, but several scientists who study past climates, known as paleoclimatologists, said the study was a careful and compelling review of the literature.

“It’s hard to piece together what the world was like,” said Bianca Perren, a paleoclimatologist for the British Antarctic Survey. “This adds just another puzzle piece to figuring out the complexity of this whole period.”

But the research isn’t without critics.

Robert Rohde, the lead scientist for the independent climate research group Berkeley Earth, said that while the authors clearly took care to assemble the estimates, the study, and some media coverage of it, overstated the role colonization played in the Little Ice Age.

“At best, it explains a portion of part of the Little Ice Age,” he said.

The Little Ice Age was centuries in the making and, he said, other factors like weak solar activity and increased volcanic activity were more likely culprits. (There is disagreement over when the Little Ice Age began and ended, though some say it lasted from about A.D. 1400 to 1900.)

Mr. Koch and his colleagues acknowledged those other factors, which they say accounted for about half of the decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide. But the other half, they argued, could only be accounted for by a large increase in vegetation caused by the effects of colonization.

In the end, they found that the deaths caused by colonization led to a drop of about 3.5 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


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