What Eric the Red and Modern Greens Have in Common

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Environmentalists can be a gloomy bunch, but they’re also realistic. In the past several years, most have given up on the idea of stopping climate change altogether; there’s just too much greenhouse gas already in the system for that. Instead, the refrain has essentially been: adapt or die. Even as we try to curb future greenhouse-gas output, we must adjust to a world that will inevitably become warmer and climatologically wilder.

As it turns out, modern greens have a lot in common with Eric the Red. The legendary Viking leader who established the Norse settlements in Western Greenland’s Disko Bay more than 1,000 years ago did not live to see the community he founded collapse, but collapse it did. And according to a new study published in the journal Boreas, bad planning in the face of climate change likely played a significant role.

Not a lot is known about the exact reasons for the rise and fall of what is historically known as the Western Settlement, except that it was established in 985 AD, thrived for nearly 400 years, and then vanished by 1350 AD. Some environmental factor has long been suspected, and to investigate that idea, a team led by climatologist Sofia Ribeiro of the University of Copenhagen set out for Disko Bay to collect marine sediment samples in the region dating back some 1,500 years. Marine sediment is not typically the first place climatologists look to study historical climate change; much more common are ice cores, which capture and preserve samples of ancient atmosphere and traces of pollen. But since the Vikings lived on and around inland fjords, the mud and silt records in the local waterways ought to reveal even more about the plants, animals and crops that coexsisted with them.

Sifting through the sediment record and comparing it with the existing studies of ice cores, Ribeiro and his team came up with the best profile yet of how climate shifted in the region over the critical four centuries — and that shift did not do the Vikings any favors. “Our study indicates that at the time the Norse arrived in West Greenland, climate conditions were relatively mild and were favorable to the settlers,” Ribeiro said. That, however, was followed by “a major shift toward cooler conditions and extensive sea ice, which coincides with the estimated time for the collapse of the Western Settlement.”

Human factors clearly weren’t driving climate change back then as they are now, but human nature remains pretty much the same across the centuries, and Ribeiro believes that the death of the settlement was due, at least in part, to simple stubbornness and a refusal to adapt. “The Norse were proud of being Europeans, farmers and Christians, and never adopted the hunting and survival techniques of the Inuit,” he says, “so these temperature shifts would have caused significant problems for the colonists and their livestock.”

Not only did the animals struggle and the crops languish, the shipping routes the Vikings relied on to keep them connected to Europe froze over. And even if the settlers did, belatedly, try their hand at hunting such local food as seal, the expanding ice sheet would have made that prey harder to reach.

None of this means that climate change was the only reason for the demise of the community, but it does mean that environmental causes likely played a powerful role. Eric and his band would have been taken by surprise by all of this — an excuse we don’t have in the 21st century. Now might be a good time to start taking advantage of the foreknowledge we’ve got.