Earth’s abrupt climate change cycles
The Vikings: Victims and Victors
Comments | Print friendly | Subscribe | Email Us
It’s ironic that we remember the Vikings best for one small failure— their frozen far-north Greenland colony. We should instead be praising the Vikings for struggling through the cold and stormy Dark Ages, for designing those fabulous dragon ships, for swaggering their way through the abundance of the Medieval Warming—and ultimately for leaving many of their descendents in warmer locations to survive the Little Age..
Overall, the Norse were big winners in their struggles with the earth’s abrupt climate change cycles. When the cold, stormy Dark Ages set in about AD 600, the Norse had just succeeded in clearing enough Scandinavian land to support their dairy cattle and a few hardy crops. They had also developed their famous long-ships, for catching codfish on the Dogger Banks offshore.
Then, suddenly, the Dark Ages shortened the northern farmers’ already-short cropping season by weeks. The colder and stormier seas drove the codfish and herring further south, away from their nets and hand-lines. Even their trading voyages became far more dangerous.
Desperate, the Vikings put sails on their swift, shallow-draft rowing boats and became the “Mongols of the North.” They looted the English church and monastery at Lindisfarne in AD 782, and for centuries went on to rape, pillage, steal, capture, and enslave around the British Isles and western France.
Being smart as well as clever, they noticed that England, Ireland, and France were not only richer, but warmer, nicer places to live. They fought their way ashore to colonize the Faeroe and Shetland Islands, northern England, Ireland, and the Normandy Peninsula of France. Then the Dark Ages shifted abruptly into the Medieval Warming, so they extended their raids into the Mediterranean, attacking southern France and northern Italy—even drawing tribute from Constantinople!
The Vikings made two serious mistakes—by trying to colonize northward during the Medieval Warming between 950 and 1200 AD. Iceland became a big Viking colony, but when the Little Ice Age’s sea ice surrounded the entire island, people and livestock died in huge numbers.
The Vikings’ other bad mistake was Greenland. Eric the Red, a historically bad guy, wanted to be chief of something, and Greenland offered walrus tusks, rare white eagles and polar bear cubs, which could be traded to Europe for the wood and metals that Greenland lacked. He sailed with 25 ships filled with people who also wanted to be somebody somewhere other than Scandinavia. (Fourteen ships made it.)
Ultimately, the Vikings’ Greenland gamble failed. William D’Andrea of Brown University led a team that cored lakebed sediments in western Greenland, near the failed colonies. They found that around AD 1100, the temperatures dropped by four degrees C –in just 80 years. Pollen studies show the Greenland climate shifted toward more intrusive oceanic storms, heavier rainfalls, deeper winter snows, and ice-encrusted forage that would have been deadly for the caribou the Norse hunted for food. Their cattle grew so weak and hungry in the longer, colder Greenland winters that they had to be carried out to the fields when spring finally arrived.
D’Andrea says that the series of “little ice ages” not only froze the Greenland Norse, but also collapsed several Inuit cultures. The real wonder is that the Greenland Vikings lasted as long as they did—the farthest northern farming ever attempted, destroyed by an abrupt climate change they had no way to predict, prevent or adapt to. Fortunately, it was a small bet—only about 3,000 people. Still, even today, their fate haunts our dreams. When might we, too, become “unsustainable”?
In truth we are always “unsustainable.” The fate of all cultures is at the whim of the climate: cold is far worse than warm, while drought is the scariest of all. Our expanding knowledge of the world’s 1,500-year climate cycles tells us to be vigilant and encourage technology to prepare for the climate changes that are certainly in our future. From the dawn of civilization, few cultures have survived 500 years.
D’Andrea et al., “Abrupt Holocene climate change as an important factor for human migration in West Greenland,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (2011)
Thomas McGovern, “Cows, Harp Seals and Church Bells: Adaptation and Extinction in Norse Greenland, Human Ecology 8 (1980):257.