Drought drove Vikings from South Greenland | Polarjournal
The landscape of the Qassiarsuk region, where the first Europeans settled on Greenland, looks completely un-Arctic and lovely. But appearances are deceptive, as the Vikings also had to learn. After only about 500 years, they disappeared again. Image: Carlo Lukassen

More than 1,000 years ago, Greenland seemed a promising region in which to settle and thrive. But the first Europeans, Vikings from Iceland, disappeared from the south of Greenland after barely 500 years. Science searched for the reasons for the sudden disappearance for a long time. An American research team has now uncovered evidence of a possible primary reason: increasing drought rather than decreasing temperatures at the settlement site.

The team, led by Professor Raymond Bradley, a professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found the evidence when analyzing sediment samples in a lake located in the vicinity of the well-known settlement of Brattahlíð, near the present-day southern Greenland hamlet of Qassiarsuk. The results showed that the temperatures in the region had hardly changed in the course of the settlement period. But the same was not true for water, as the study’s lead author, Boyang Zhao, explains. “What we discovered is that, while the temperature barely changed over the course of the Norse settlement of southern Greenland, it became steadily drier over time.” As a result, grass production in the summer was reduced, or rather the quality of the food steadily declined, and the livestock, which already had enough difficulty in the harsh climate with the falling temperatures in winter, had less and less qaulity food, especially in winter. The team’s work has now been published in the journal Science Advances.

For a long time, scientists have been researching the reasons for the disappearance of the first European settlers in Greenland. Climate change, diseases, pirates and conflicts with the Inuit were thrown in the round of possible reasons. Above all, the onset of the “Little Ice Age” seemed to be the most plausible explanation why the descendants of Erik the Red disappeared from the region again after almost 500 years. But that did not seem to be enough for the UMAss Amherst researchers. That’s because, according to the team, the data came from ice cores taken more than 1,000 kilometers further north and at over 2,000 meters above sea level. “We wanted to study how climate had varied close to the Norse farms themselves,” says Raymond Bradley.

The Vikings settled between the coast and the ice sheet, far from their origins in Iceland. Today, Qassiarsuk is located on the coast and opposite Narsarsuaq airport, which also hosts flights to and from Reykjavik. Map: Michael Wenger via Google Earth

The results of the research team came from the analysis of sediment samples from a lake located near the original Viking settlement of Brattahlíð. “Before this study, there was no data from the actual site of the Viking settlements. And that’s a problem,” explains Raymond Bradley. From the sediment samples, which had preserved about 2,000 years of climate history, they reconstructed the local temperature by analyzing a lipid on the one hand; on the other hand, they also examined the residues from the wax layer of plant leaves, which provide information about the amount of water. These showed that over time, drought conditions became more severe. This was reflected in the quality of food for livestock, which needed the grass, especially in winter. Since the quality was already rather on the lower edge under good conditions, the reduction in quality intensified by the drought meant the end of livestock farming and thus also the end for the settlement, the research team concludes.

The video shows lead author Boyang Zhao taking samples in the lake at Qassiarsuk.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to study: Zhao et al (2022) Scie Adv 8 (12) Prolonged drying trend coincident with the demise of Norse settlement in southern Greenland; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm4346

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