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For unsuspecting herdsmen in the 13th century, April showers didn't bring May flowers—they brought Mongol hordes.
New research by tree-ring scientists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and West Virginia University may have uncovered the reason why an obscure band of nomadic Mongol horsemen were able to sweep through much of Asia in a few meteoric decades 800 years ago, conquering everything in their path: They enjoyed an unprecedented, and yet-to-be-repeated, 15-year run of bountiful rains and mild weather on the normally cold and arid steppes.
The traditional view has been that the Mongols were desperately fleeing harsh conditions in their craggy, mountainous homeland. The Lamont-Doherty team, however, found just the opposite: Between 1211 and 1225—a period that neatly coincides with the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire—central Mongolia enjoyed a spell of sustained benign weather unlike anything the region has experienced during at least the past 1,100 years and probably much longer.
"What makes our new record distinctive is that we can see 15 straight years of above-average moisture," says the study's lead author, Neil Pedersen, a tree-ring scientist with the Lamond-Doherty Earth Observatory. "It falls during an important period in Mongol history and is singular in terms of persistently wet conditions."