Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Melting Greenland and the mystery of the lost Norse settlers

with 8 comments


Greenland melting is in the news again. It even made the New York Times, so many people will assume the story must be some sort of liberal plot. I wish it was. Greenland is one of those places that sounds really interesting, but I’ll likely never visit. Icebergs floating by one’s front yard, how cool is that? In any event, turns out Greenland is still melting at at alarming rate. New islands are being discovered as the ice retreats and reveals that what were thought to be peninsulas are actually islands. Lots of fun for geographers, and people who discover them get to name them. It was until very recently thought that melting ice from Greenland was going to be negligible over the next 100 years. Since none of the models predicted the rapid onset of melting we now see occurring, who knows what is going to happen. It’s entirely possible that Greenland will shed enough water to raise the global sea level by a foot in the next decade or two.

A foot may not seem like much, but in many parts of the world that means the shoreline would move thousands of feet inland. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced. At best this is going to be very expensive, at worst this could be catastrophic. The scary thing about this is that not only didn’t anyone predict this, the scientists who have been predicting global warming didn’t predict this. A huge subcontinent is melting faster than anyone thought possible. Um, if this continues the critics of global warming may end up wishing the global warming people were right. Because if the global warming scientists are wrong and the world is warming faster than predicted, we are all in le doo doo deep.

This main stream media may even start to follow this story, subcontinents melting are hard to ignore. In addition, the history of Greenland itself reveals something about humans and climate change. More importantly, how some humans react to climate change and some don’t. The climate has changed in Greenland before, and it resulted in one of the great mysteries of history. A Norse settlement that had thrived for centuries vanished. What the hell happened to the Norse in Greenland?

The mystery begins in 985 AD, Erik the Red, father of the famous Leif Eriksson, discovered and settled Greenland. Greenland was warmer then, and there were areas of meadow and forest suitable for Norse settlement. And settle they did, even having Bishop assigned to them, though the Bishop in question often didn’t actually travel to his assigned diocese. The Norse settlers in Greenland had a reputation of being a pretty ornery bunch. And a productive hard working bunch, they built a cathedral and hundreds of stone buildings. The settlements were about 5,000 strong at one point, but then the weather cooled in the North Atlantic, and the sea lanes were cut off.

By the time of Columbus all contact with Greenland had been lost, not to be resumed again until over 100 years later. When the Norse returned to Greenland in 1540 they found apparently the last surviving Norse settler had died some weeks before their arrival. How’s that for bad timing, your colony waits over 100 years for help from the motherland, and it arrives a few weeks too late? Was their a Norse version of FEMA? No one else was left, what had a happened to the Norse settlements in Greenland?

Historians are still arguing about it, but a lot of archaeology has been done at this point. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they were overrun by Inuit or pirates as has been suggested. There does seem to be a lot of evidence that they clung to their European ways till the bitter end, and were not able to adapt to the changing weather. The Inuit did just fine, there were plenty of them to greet the Norse when the Norse returned. It has been seriously suggested that the Norse were victims of their own sense of superiority. They clung to their European ways and were not able to adapt as the climate grew less and less suitable for agriculture and animal husbandry. They even moved their animals into their homes with them during the winter as the times got worse, in a desperate attempt to maintain their cattle and sheep. The seas and land abounded with fish and game, but the Norse slowly starved to death as their cattle and sheep herds dwindled in the ever harsher winters.

Is it a slam dunk that’s what did the Greenland Norse in? No, but it’s the best idea anyone has come up with so far, and the evidence seems to bear it out. And whatever the Norse did, it wasn’t enough, and these were some pretty tough folk. I’m not sure what the lesson here is for us, but it certainly bears thinking about. Will American history someday end with a dead guy on a beach, the last tattered MacDonald’s wrapper clenched in his skeletal hand? Stay tuned…

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and it is central to illustrating the post.)

Written by unitedcats

January 17, 2007 at 10:03 am

8 Responses

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  1. Hi Doug,

    Speaking of Greenland, check out:



    January 17, 2007 at 11:57 am

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post , although I admit that given the subject matter “enjoyed” may seem an odd choice of words. :)


    January 17, 2007 at 8:57 pm

  3. I just wanted to thank you for commenting on my blog….I just started and I’m not really sure what I’m doing yet….I was actually shocked when I noticed I had a few comments to review….So, thanks.

    You have a great site.

    – Catherine

    Catherine Morgan

    January 17, 2007 at 10:23 pm

  4. I agree that the evidence does very much support climate change and environmental degradation as being the main cause of the collapse of Norse Greenland (though opportunistic Inuit attacks probably put them out of their misery).

    But that they effectively chose to die as European farmers rather than survive through dramatic adaptation is more than just an irrational superiority complex. Greenland had never been an easy place to live, and the Norse’s social and cultural structures and conventions helped them to help each other to survive. They had to cling tightly to tradition, as in their fragile environment deviation could be devastating.

    Ultimately there were flaws in that system that weren’t revealed until it was too late, and these were enormously exacerbated by environmental changes (climate change, soil depletion, the collapse of the walrus ivory trade). They were slow to recognise that, in light of these changes, survival meant breaking with tradition – because for so long survival had meant sticking anally to tradition.

    These were not blind and intolerant white supremists. It is extremely difficult to recognise and appreciate when and how it is necessary to break with dearly-held values and traditions. The Vikings – like many others – failed in this, and went down with their sinking social structure. Let’s not be too harsh on them for that, though, because we’re in the process of doing exactly the same thing.

    Dave On Fire

    March 7, 2007 at 6:36 am

  5. haven’t been here for a while and don’t know why; found my first venture exciting; always enjoyed history in high school so what a bonus to find this while browsing the web and discovering new discoverers!
    bastiaan wever

    bastiaan wever

    September 6, 2008 at 9:22 pm

  6. What sort of climate change caused the greening of Greenland that prompted settlement by the Vikings in the first place? Clearly not excessive burning of fossil fuels and CO2 in the atmosphere. What was the water level of the oceans when Greenland was last green? Reversing the rising oceans logic; thousands of feet of new land began to be created 700 years ago by retreating ocean water when Greenland began to cool and stay frozen?

    Smoking Gun

    June 26, 2009 at 12:41 pm

  7. […] Norse Greenland, Easter Island, The Anasazi, Vinland, Mangareva, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands ( Southeast […]

  8. there are other similiar situations like the Cahokia mounds
    if you liked this article then you will definitely like these articles


    December 12, 2009 at 4:40 am

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