June 24th, 2011 by Joshua S Hill
According to new research into the collapse of a centuries old colony established by Vikings in Western Greenland, human adaptation to changing climate may not be a new problem at all.
The authors of the research suggest that the 1350 A.D. collapse of the colony may have suffered from changes in the climate, and the inhabitants inability to adapt to the changes.
The research focused on Disko Bay in Western Greenland, and was led by Dr Sofia Ribeiro from the University of Copenhagen, currently at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. The researchers used a marine sediment record to reconstruct climate change over the last 1500 years, which includes the arrival of Norse settlers, led by Eric the Red in 985 A.D., and the establishment of the Western Settlement and subsequent arrival north at Disko Bay.
“Our study indicates that at the time the Norse arrived in West Greenland, climate conditions were relatively mild and were favorable to the settlers” said Ribeiro. “However, in AD 1350 the settlement collapsed, the cause of which has long been debated.”
The research team compared “robust air temperature reconstructions based on ice-core data with their own marine record” which underlined the complexity of the region, its climate patterns, which according to the scientists studying the data could vary from ice core reconstructions. The variations were strongly controlled by the fluctuations of the Atlantic waters which are drawn into play by the West Greenland Current.
“Our study shows a major shift towards cooler conditions and extensive sea-ice which coincides with the estimated time for the collapse of the Western Settlement in AD 1350,” said Dr Ribeiro. “The Norse were proud of being Europeans, farmers and Christians, and never adopted the hunting and survival techniques of the Inuit, so these temperature shifts would have caused significant problems for the colonists and their livestock.”
And while living in an area such as Disko Bay, which was famous for being a great location for hunting walruses and seals, the additional increase of sea-ice would have only added yet another barrier for the Vikings ability to survive, not to mention blocking trade routes to sell their excess.
“We cannot attribute the end of the Norse civilisation to a single factor, but there is enough evidence to suggest that climate change played a major role in determining its collapse,” concluded Ribeiro. “Harsh climate conditions made farming and cattle production increasingly difficult and the extensive sea-ice prevented navigation and trading with Europe.”
“There is perhaps an important lesson to learn from the Norse collapse and that is a lesson of adaptation, of being able to adjust our values and life-style when times change. That is an important challenge we face today as a society.”
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