Climate Change Froze the Vikings Out of Greenland, Say Scientists

By Valerie Ross | May 31, 2011 4:19 pm

What’s the News: Climate change may have sparked the demise of early Viking settlements in Greenland, according to a new study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, when temperatures cooled rapidly over several decades. Around the time the Vikings disappear from the island’s archaeological record, temperature appears to have plunged. Nor were the Vikings the only people in Greenland whose fortunes rose and fell with the average temperature, the study suggests. Earlier cold spells may have played a role in the collapse of two previous groups on the island.

How the Heck:

  • To reconstruct the area’s climate, the researchers took mud cores from two lakes in western Greenland. Then, they measured the levels of alkenones, fats made by algae, left behind in the mud. Since how much algae blooms depends on the water temperature, and the water temperature varies with the air temperature, this measurement lets scientists work backward to figure out what the past climate was like.
  • Over the past 5,600 years, the researchers found, the arrivals and departures of three groups coincided with major, rapid temperature changes.
  • The Saqqaq people, who first came to Greenland about 4,500 years ago, disappeared around 850 BC, when temperatures quickly cooled. At the same time, the Dorset people came to the island. As Inuits from the Canadian Arcitic, the Dorset were prepared for the cold, with a technological arsenal that included snow-cutting knives for building igloos.
  • About 2,000 years ago, the Dorset, too, left the island, though the reason remains unclear. It could have something to do with the climate quickly warming then rapidly cooling at about that time. “It is possible that it got so cold they left, but there has to be more to it than that,” climate change researcher William D’Andrea, the study’s lead author, said in a prepared statement.
  • The Norse Vikings arrived in Greenland around 980 AD, during a 300-year-long warm period. Starting around 1100, however, the climate cooled rapidly. Average temperature dropped 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) in only 80 years. Since the Norse—Viking fame aside—were largely farmers, this drop in temperature likely hit them hard. They began to leave Greenland shortly thereafter, and by the mid-15th century their settlements lay abandoned.

What’s the Context:

  • While the archaeological record has shown when these cultures came and went from Greenland, it has provided relatively little information as to why. This study backs up the archaeological finds and shows that climate could be a major factor in the rise and fall of these groups.
  • It’s likely that other events and circumstances played a role, too. The Vikings, for instance, were grappling with isolation from European trade (and the much-needed resources it supplied), soil erosion, and competition from Inuit peoples.

The Future Holds:

  • Greenland today is undergoing rapid climate change as the Arctic warms. This warming will likely have a range of effects, from a longer growing season to a more quickly melting ice sheet. “The Arctic is undergoing major changes,” D’Andrea told Scientific American. “Just like in the past, some people will benefit and others will lose out.”

Reference: William J. D’Andrea, Yongsong Huang, Sherilyn C. Fritz, & N. John Anderson. “Abrupt Holocene climate change as an important factor for human migration in West Greenland.” PNAS Early Edition, May 30, 2011. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1101708108

Image: Greenland from the air; Wikimedia Commons / Túrelio

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Human Origins
  • http://gmail yup

    can you use smaller words plz

  • ChH

    Who’d have thought there could be rapid climate change without CO2-producing modern technology?

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    I’ll bet that all those people left because of food shortages.

  • goody

    not to many animals live in the cold and bein a small island that stayed inhabbited by humans its no wonder they didnt stay long…and its hard to farm in the colder wheather. and then take into consideration that humans evolve and we are greedy when it comes to our needs or lookin toward the futer instead i believe we progress and have to move forward. so stayin on a island that stayed pretty populated and got used up is not somethin we would do.

  • Benjamin

    You know, I’m pretty sure I read the exact same theory in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, supplemented by climate and archaeological data.

  • vanitha

    Climate change took away many good things in the past,and
    it is more rapid than ever before.see,hold,and preserve what
    we have still left.

  • Jon Deane

    We needed a study for this? People have known that climate change caused the Norse to leave Greenland for decades if not centuries.

    Frankly I’m surprised to see this here; normally any climate stories other than “GLOBAL WARMING BAD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!” get censored by scientists (since global warming is the current paradigm and normal science is about making findings fit into the paradigm, and questioning the paradigm is a big no-no; the scientists better hope that the Republicans never read Kuhn, because that would likely mean the end of science).

  • http://www.pak-times.com Rubab

    Climate change has adversely effected everyone not only the vikings of GreenLand but whole world. It has a complex nature.. and calls for better understanding and knowledge to handle this issue.. Not only rising and falling of groups but several other factors are going to be dependent upon climatic changes in near future

  • klem

    “Climate change took away many good things in the past,and
    it is more rapid than ever before”

    Um, the more climate science learns, the less credible claims like that become. As time goes on, the world will realize that climate is unstable, it has always been unstable. What we see today is within normal variability. Cheers.

  • John Lerch

    It may be within normal variability; BUT CO2 addition corresponds to changing the set point and that corresponds to an infinite gain of the system. And higher gain means more rapid and just plain more oscillation. Eventually the system will settle down to a new set point after about a dozen cycles which in this case would be about 100 years if nothing else changes.
    CO2 climate change is FACT by VIRTUE of BEING PREDICTED LoooNG BEFORE any effects were noticed–in 1900 by the first Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. The ONLY question left is: IS THERE ENOUGH GLOBAL COOLING (compensatory and man-made) TO counteract the worst of the forecasted outcomes?

  • Barry Johnstone.

    “Climate change took away many good things in the past, and it is more rapid than ever before” but it will keep on happening – as it has happened many times before!

  • Milton

    Hey Goody,
    FYI Greenland is the largest island in the world. It is 836,109 square miles in area.

    And Yup, why not work on your vocabulary instead of asking others to dumb down.

  • Wilson

    AGW is just a new twist on an old religious scam.

    Repent, give up your worldly goods, and ye shall be saved.

    (by the priestly class who make out like bandits – read Al Gore and ilk)

    Move on citizen, nothing new here!

  • Jim

    Certainly Climate changes naturally but almost as certainly humans influence that change. And even if we didn’t, we’d want to, wouldn’t we? We’ve tried to change everything else! But whatever, it looks like its time to invest in Greenland real estate!

  • Dean

    I read that fresh water influx caused by melting glaciers and icebergs caused a temperature increase in the oceans which ultimately shifted the global jet stream and weather patterns during this period. This phenomena along with increasing greenhouse gas is driving our current climate. Combine air pollution and particulate, ash from volcanic activity, reflecting and cooling affect from jet exhaust and its know wonder our climatologist have difficulty predicting weather forecast. its a crazy feedback loop

  • Brian Too

    Wasn’t this already well established? I mean, I didn’t really know about the Saqqaq or the Dorset, but I thought it was already known that the Norse were essentially frozen off the island. There was archeological evidence that some perished amid miserable circumstances (cold and hunger).

    As farmers the Norse Vikings were more vulnerable to lower temperatures. The Inuit survived the cold interval, though not on Greenland.

  • Ken

    I don’t think this is a new idea. I recall learning about 50 years ago that Greenland cooled and the Norse culture became more ‘primitive’ (a relatively rare occurence) because the cooling and isolation left fewer resources available.

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