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Climate, a key factor in the disappearance of Vikings

Greenland's early Viking settlers were subjected to rapidly changing climate. Temperatures plunged several degrees in a span of decades, according to research from Brown University.

A reconstruction of 5,600 years of climate history from lakes near the Norse settlement in western Greenland also shows how climate affected the Dorset and Saqqaq cultures.

The end of the Norse settlements on Greenland likely will remain shrouded in mystery. While there is scant written evidence of the colony's demise in the 14 and early 15 centuries, archaeological remains can fill some of the blanks, but not all.

What climate scientists have been able to ascertain is that an extended cold snap, called the Little Ice Age, gripped Greenland beginning in the 1400s.

This has been cited as a major cause of the disappearance of the Norse people.Now researchers led by Brown University show the climate turned colder in an earlier span of several decades, setting in motion the end of the Greenland Norse.

Their findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.The Brown scientists' finding comes from the first reconstruction of 5,600 years of climate history from two lakes in Kangerlussuaq, near the Norse "Western Settlement." Unlike ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet hundreds of miles inland, the new lake core measurements reflect air temperatures where the Vikings lived, as well as those experienced by the Saqqaq and the Dorset, Stone Age cultures that preceded them."This is the first quantitative temperature record from the area they were living in," said William D'Andrea, the paper's first author, who earned his doctorate in geological sciences at Brown and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. "So we can say there was a definite cooling trend in the region right before the Norse disappear.""

The record shows how quickly temperature changed in the region and by how much," said co-author Yongsong Huang, professor of geological sciences at Brown, principal investigator of the NSF-funded project, and D'Andrea's Ph.D. adviser.

"It is interesting to consider how rapid climate change may have impacted past societies, particularly in light of the rapid changes taking place today.

"D'Andrea points out that climate is not the only factor in the demise of the Norse Western Settlement.

The Vikings' sedentary lifestyle, reliance on agriculture and livestock for food, dependence on trade with Scandinavia and combative relations with the neighboring Inuit, are believed to be contributing factors.

Still, it appears that climate played a significant role. The Vikings arrived in Greenland in the 980s, establishing a string of small communities along Greenland's west coast. ( but farther south on the island.) The arrival coincided with a time of relatively mild weather, similar to that in Greenland today.

However, beginning around 1100, the climate changed.

 

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