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Climate change killed off Viking settlement on Greenland

By Colin Ricketts - 31 May 2011 14:50:0 GMT
Climate change killed off Viking settlement on Greenland

Climate change - although it was cooling rather than warming - probably helped end the Viking settlements on Greenland according to the latest evidence discovered by a Brown University team of researchers.

The team, who publish their research in the new edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), have taken the first historical survey of temperatures where the so-called Vikings of the so-called Western Settlement lived by using measurements from two lakes in Kangerlussuaq which have enabled them to reconstruct 5,600 years of climate change.

The Norse settlers on Greenland disappeared some time in the late 14th or early 15th centuries and there is no written evidence of why the colony vanished and archaeology has so far been unable to come up with all the answers.

Now climate scientists say that the Little Ice Age of the 15th Century which was previously thought to be one of the reasons why the settlement failed was preceded by an earlier cooling.

Paper co-author Yongsong Huang, professor of geological sciences at Brown, said: "It is interesting to consider how rapid climate change may have impacted past societies, particularly in light of the rapid changes taking place today."

William D'Andrea says that it wasn't just climate that killed off the Viking settlement. They were also over-reliant on farming and trade with their home territories in Scandinavia and never made peace with the Inuit inhabitants of Greenland.

The settlement was founded in the 980s when the Greenland climate was close to conditions today. By 1100 however, the climate entered a period of lower temperature according to the team's lake readings. While the drop was only around 4 degrees Celsius, it would have affected food and trade.

It wasn't only the recently arrived Vikings who suffered say the Brown scientists. An earlier cooling, around 850 BC saw off the Saqqaq people who called Greenland home from around 2500 BC. They were supplanted by the Dorset people who vanish from the scene around 50 BC, possibly as the result of a further cooling.

(Top Image Credit: William D'Andrea/Brown University. Caption: William D'Andrea, right, and Yongsong Huang took cores from two lakes in Greenland to reconstruct 5,600 years of climate history near the Norse Western Settlement.)