Melting Greenland and the mystery of the lost Norse settlers
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…
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