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Making Sense of the Mayan Collapse
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Large stone buildings on top of a grassy hill
Image above: These are the ruins of the ancient Mayan city named Tikal. Credit: NASA
Hundreds of years ago, the Maya were the native people of Central America and part of Mexico. They lived simple lives, but they had big ideas. They studied the stars. They built big cities. They could read and write.

The Maya from that long ago culture are gone now. We don't really know what happened to them. Finding clues is hard because trees and dirt cover their towns.

A satellite picture of a Mayan site showing hot and cold spots with different colors
Image above: The yellowish areas in this satellite image show ancient Mayan building sites. Credit: IKONOS
Scientists who study the Mayan towns use new tools to learn more. They use satellites in space to look down at the jungles. The satellites can find things people can't. Satellites can see small changes in the ground and in the trees. They use sensors to measure and find changes.

Satellite sensors can show what hides under the trees. The sensors on the satellites can detect tiny bits of heat that we cannot see or feel. Dirt that covers the old buildings is not packed down like other dirt. Loose dirt has a different temperature. The different temperatures make it easier to find where things are buried.

NASA scientists use satellites to study the Maya. They've found old Mayan roads, waterways and dams. One scientist found a very old Mayan painting called a mural. It was painted on the wall of a building he uncovered.

Two men in backpacks kneeling down to get a closer look at a large, moss-covered rock
Image above: Tom Sever (right) and a graduate student study a stone pyramid used by the Maya to record information or display carved art. Credit: NASA
The Maya built huge cities. They cut down a lot of trees for their buildings. Not long after, scientists think the weather became dry for a very long time. Soon, the Mayan people began to die.

Scientists wonder if cutting all the trees changed the weather. They wonder if cutting down trees led to the end of the Maya.

Scientists will keep studying the Maya. The scientists plan to keep using satellites. They hope to show people today the need to take care of the land. Caring for the land may help keep our world healthier.

These questions are important. The answers could help people today. The answers might keep us from making the same mistakes.

Related Resources
+ Remote Sensing Archaeology Research at NASA

+ Earth Observatory: Mayan Mysteries

+ Previous Earth Explorers Articles

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies