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The Establishment and Demise of the Medieval Nordic Settlements on Greenland: The Role of Natural Climate Change
Volume 7, Number 22: 2 June 2004

In the second of a set of three papers that reconstruct environmental conditions in the vicinity of Igaliku Fjord, South Greenland -- before, during and after the period of Norse habitation of this and other parts of the ice-covered island's coast -- Lassen et al. (2004) provide some historical background to their palaeoclimatic work by reporting that "the Norse, under Eric the Red, were able to colonize South Greenland at AD 985, according to the Icelandic Sagas, owing to the mild Medieval Warm Period climate with favorable open-ocean conditions." They also mention, in this regard, that the arrival of the gritty Norsemen was "close to the peak of Medieval warming recorded in the GISP2 ice core which was dated at AD 975 (Stuiver et al., 1995)," while we additionally note that Esper et al. (2002) independently identified the peak warmth of this period throughout North American extratropical latitudes as "occurring around 990." Hence, it would appear that the window of climatic opportunity provided by the peak warmth of the Medieval Warm Period was indeed a major factor enabling seafaring Scnadinavians to establish enduring settlements on the coast of Greenland.

As time progressed, however, the glowing promise of the apex of Medieval warmth gave way to the debilitating reality of the depth of Little Ice Age cold. Jensen et al. (2004), for example, report that the diatom record of Igaliku Fjord "yields evidence of a relatively moist and warm climate at the beginning of settlement, which was crucial for Norse land use," but that "a regime of more extreme climatic fluctuations began soon after AD 1000, and after AD c. 1350 cooling became more severe." Lassen et al. additionally note that "historical documents on Iceland report the presence of the Norse in South Greenland for the last time in AD 1408," during what they describe as a period of "unprecedented influx of (ice-loaded) East Greenland Current water masses into the innermost parts of Igaliku Fjord." They also report that "studies of a Canadian high-Arctic ice core and nearby geothermal data (Koerner and Fisher, 1990) correspondingly show a significant temperature lowering at AD 1350-1400," when, in their words, "the Norse society in Greenland was declining and reaching its final stage probably before the end of the fifteenth century." Consequently, what the relative warmth of the Medieval Warm Period provided the Norse settlers, the relative cold of the Little Ice Age took from them: the ability to survive on Greenland.

Many more details of this incredible saga of five centuries of Nordic survival at the foot of the Greenland Ice Cap are provided by the trio of papers addressing the palaeohistory of Igaliku Fjord. Based on a high-resolution record of the fjord's subsurface water-mass properties derived from analyses of benthic foraminifera, Lassen et al. conclude that stratification of the water column, with Atlantic water masses in its lower reaches, appears to have prevailed throughout the last 3200 years, except for the Medieval Warm Period. During this period, which they describe as occurring between AD 885 and 1235, the outer part of Igaliku Fjord experienced enhanced vertical mixing (which they attribute to increased wind stress) that would have been expected to increase nutrient availability there. A similar conclusion was reached by Roncaglia and Kuijpers (2004), who found evidence of increased bottom-water ventilation between AD 960 and 1285. Consequently, based on these findings, plus evidence of the presence of Melonis barleeanus during the Medieval Warm Period (the distribution of which is mainly controlled by the presence of partly decomposed organic matter), Lassen et al. conclude that surface productivity in the fjord during this interval of unusual relative warmth was "high and thus could have provided a good supply of marine food for the Norse people."

Shortly thereafter, however, the cooling that led to the Little Ice Age was accompanied by a gradual re-stratification of the water column, which curtailed nutrient upwelling and reduced the high level of marine productivity that had prevailed throughout the Medieval Warm Period. These linked events, according to Lassen et al., "contributed to the loss of the Norse settlement in Greenland." Indeed, with deteriorating growing conditions on land and simultaneous reductions in oceanic productivity, the odds were truly stacked against the Nordic colonies, and it was only a matter of time before their fate was sealed. As Lassen et al. describe it, "around AD 1450, the climate further deteriorated with further increasing stratification of the water-column associated with stronger advection of (ice-loaded) East Greenland Current water masses." This development, in their words, led to an even greater "increase of the ice season and a decrease of primary production and marine food supply," which "could also have had a dramatic influence on the local seal population and thus the feeding basis for the Norse population."

The end result of these several conjoined phenomena, in the words of Lassen et al., was that "climatic and hydrographic changes in the area of the Eastern Settlement were significant in the crucial period when the Norse disappeared." Also, Jensen et al. report that "geomorphological studies in Northeast Greenland have shown evidence of increased winter wind speed, particularly in the period between AD 1420 and 1580 (Christiansen, 1998)," noting that "this climatic deterioration coincides with reports of increased sea-ice conditions that caused difficulties in using the old sailing routes from Iceland westbound and further southward along the east coast of Greenland, forcing sailing on more southerly routes when going to Greenland (Seaver, 1996)."

In conclusion, Jensen et al. say that "life conditions certainly became harsher during the 500 years of Norse colonization," and that this severe cooling-induced environmental deterioration "may very likely have hastened the disappearance of the culture." At the same time, it is also clear that the more favorable living conditions associated with the peak warmth of the Medieval Warm Period -- which occurred between approximately AD 975 (Stuiver et al., 1995) and AD 990 (Esper et al., 2002) -- were what originally enabled the Norse to successfully colonize the region. Furthermore, in the thousand-plus subsequent years, there has never been a sustained period of comparable warmth, nor of comparable terrestrial or marine productivity, either locally or hemispherically (and likely globally, as well), the strident protestations of Mann et al. (2003) notwithstanding. Hence, since the peak warmth of the Medieval Warm Period was caused by something quite apart from elevated levels of atmospheric CO2, or any other greenhouse gas, for that matter, there is no reason to not believe that a return engagement of that same factor or group of factors is responsible for the even lesser warmth of today.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Christiansen, H.H. 1998. 'Little Ice Age' nivation activity in northeast Greenland. The Holocene 8: 719-728.

Esper, J., Cook, E.R. and Schweingruber, F.H. 2002. Low-frequency signals in long tree-ring chronologies for reconstructing past temperature variability. Science 295: 2250-2253.

Jensen, K.G., Kuijpers, A., Koc, N. and Heinemeier, J. 2004. Diatom evidence of hydrographic changes and ice conditions in Igaliku Fjord, South Greenland, during the past 1500 years. The Holocene 14: 152-164.

Koerner, R.M. and Fisher, D.A. 1990. A record of Holocene summer climate from a Canadian high-Arctic ice core. Nature 343: 630-631.

Lassen, S.J., Kuijpers, A., Kunzendorf, H., Hoffmann-Wieck, G., Mikkelsen, N. and Konradi, P. 2004. Late-Holocene Atlantic bottom-water variability in Igaliku Fjord, South Greenland, reconstructed from foraminifera faunas. The Holocene 14: 165-171.

Mann, M., Amman, C., Bradley, R., Briffa, K., Jones, P., Osborn, T., Crowley, T., Hughes, M., Oppenheimer, M., Overpeck, J., Rutherford, S., Trenberth, K. and Wigley, T. 2003. On past temperatures and anomalous late-20th century warmth. EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 84: 256-257.

Roncaglia, L. and Kuijpers A. 2004. Palynofacies analysis and organic-walled dinoflagellate cysts in late-Holocene sediments from Igaliku Fjord, South Greenland. The Holocene 14: 172-184.

Seaver, K.A. 1996. The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America AD c. 1000-1500. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, USA.

Stuiver, M., Grootes, P.M. and Braziunas, T.F. 1995. The GISP2 18O climate record of the past 16,500 years and the role of the sun, ocean, and volcanoes. Quaternary Research 44: 341-354.