Guest essay by F.J. Shepherd
Found this article on What’s Up With That blog. Some more facts being ignored, I think. RSC
Greenland’s Hvalsey Church – the place of the last recorded written record of the Norsemen
Norse Medieval Greenland and Historical Realities
Some people have claimed that Greenland was no warmer 1,000 years ago than it is today. In fact, some have even suggested that it was colder 1,000 years ago. Are such suggestions made to bolster the alleged “unprecedented” warming claim for the past 135 years? Contrary to such claims, history paints a very different picture.
In this essay, I will examine some of the historical facts concerning Greenland starting 1,000 years ago and will then attempt to demonstrate how much warmer Greenland had to be in order to accommodate the history that transpired in this region.
Greenland’s Climate Today
Today, Greenland experiences a polar climate. There should be no dispute about this. The average annual temperature of Greenland sits around -17 degrees C. The only region colder in the world is Antarctica.
Polar climate is divided into two categories: (1) ice cap; and (2) tundra. The majority of Greenland, 80%, is ice capped. The average thickness of this ice cap is about 1.2 miles. Every month of the year has an average temperature below freezing as that is what defines the temperature parameter for the polar ice cap climate.
As for the rest of Greenland, the other 20%, this is the narrow strip of coastland around some of the island. This is the polar tundra category (2) wherein the average monthly temperature of any month does not exceed10 degrees C. I have found a couple of locations on the coast that just barely reach a subpolar classification. The average temperature of July, at these two locations, does exceed 10 degrees C by a fraction of a degree.
Even in the “warm” southern part of Greenland, prime agricultural land and a climate conducive to farming do not exist. Did they exist 1,000 years ago? In part, they had to exist for otherwise, Greenland’s history would be much different.
Greenland Norse History in Brief
We have to start with Iceland that was discovered by the Norwegians and settled by them starting in the 870’s. Starting here is necessary since the Norse Greenlanders came from Iceland.
Please note that Iceland is about 800 miles over the seas from Norway, and that is quite the distance for Norse longships or the knerrir (cargo ships) to travel over a stormy, northern Atlantic ocean. About 25% of the Iceland was covered in forest, for the climate was warm enough to grow trees. It probably had the same subpolar oceanic climate that is has today, or perhaps it was even warmer. The reason why it has few trees now is that they were cleared by the Norsemen to make way for farmland. The Norwegians did what they did best and farmed Iceland. The climate was quite conducive to farming. Within a century, all the good land was taken.
The early settlers came in droves wanting to remove themselves from the control of a growing Norwegian aristocracy under the auspices of an unpopular but powerful monarchy. Thus, the Icelanders were a fiercely independent people and preferred the clan based chieftain political system with its Althing assembly wherein all freemen had the right to give counsel.
Although Greenland is not viewable from Iceland, it did not take long for the Icelanders to learn that there was more land further west. Erik the Red from Iceland explored Greenland and gave it its name. He drew settlers from Iceland to pioneer the southern part of Greenland. Claiming the best land in the south for himself, he became a chieftain. This happened circa AD 985.
Greenland is as far from Iceland as Iceland is from Norway. The Eastern settlement in the south of Greenland is about 800 miles from Iceland. Of the first 25 boats that first set out to settle Greenland, only 14 made the destination. That might give an idea as to how precarious it was to traverse the north Atlantic in the Norse ships. This should also prevent people from suggesting that Iceland supplied the Greenlanders with all their ongoing necessities via ships.
The first Greenlanders brought with them grain seed (probably barley, oats and rye), horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. The wealthier amongst them brought their Irish and Scottish thralls (slaves). They set up a mirror image of the Icelandic system of chieftains and the Althing assembly. More settlers came later from Iceland, and two other settlements were formed: the Middle and the Western.
Greenland on the southern coastal areas throughout the fiords and inlets was well forested at the time – if it was warm enough to have trees, it would have been warm enough to farm. I am quite certain that the Middle and Western settlements were identified as being suitable for farming because they were forested as well.
Greenland Norse settlements lasted about 500 years. For comparison purposes, English-speaking Europeans founded their first permanent North American settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, and that was just 410 years ago from today.
Greenland Norsemen Society and Culture
When the Greenlanders started to establish their new farmsteads, the Norwegians were going through a transition period from the old Nordic religion to Christianity. Christianity prevailed in time. As Greenland grew in population, the Church took notice and the Diocese of Gardar was established in AD 1124 with its headquarters established in the Eastern settlement. This Diocese maintained a bishop until AD 1378 – a period of 255 years. Priests were sent from Norway to manage the 18 to 19 parish churches established at the various settlements, and a relatively large cathedral was built at Gardar. So too, a Convent and a Monastery were built in the Eastern settlement to draw from the local population.
I have noticed that there has lately been a trend to downplay the population size of the Greenland settlements. The current trend is to estimate that there were no more than 2,500 Norse people in the Greenland settlements at their height. Estimates previously ranged from 5,000 to 10,000. If one simply looks at the statistics for the Christian Church alone and its involvement within the Greenland communities, with a bishop, probably 18 priests and churches, a Convent, a Monastery, a Cathedral, not to mention all of the other religious overhead personnel involved, why would the Church go through all this effort for just a few thousand people?
So far, there have been excavated about 620 Norse farms in the Greenland settlements. The structure of the farm culture in Greenland more than likely followed the traditional Norse setup – a longhouse being the central residence of the farm dwellers with two to three families occupying the house. Some of the adult members of the families may have been related by blood. It is estimated that each farm longhouse would house from 10 to 20 people who worked the farm. By taking just the lower estimate of 10 persons per farm, we have at the height of the Greenland settlements at least 6,000 people. Norse farm families had on average, seven children – three and a half of which survived to adulthood. I do believe that at the height of the Norse Greenland settlements, choosing the higher end of population size is probably closer to the reality that was. I would be inclined to put the estimate closer to a population size from 8,000 to 9,000.
The Phases of Greenland Norse History
I divide the 500-year span of the Greenland Norse settlements into two basic phases. The first phase was from AD 1000 to AD 1300 – the warm time wherein the settlements thrived under a relatively pleasant climate conducive to farming, trade and exploration. The second phase commenced after AD 1300 and ended in the early 1500’s. It comprised a steadily deteriorating and cooling climate wherein the independent spirit of the Greenlanders was just not enough to beat the cold.
I find it amusing to read the many articles written about the “mystery” as to why the Norse Greenland settlements disappeared. A medieval society cannot farm land in a polar climate that Greenland attained over a period of a century or more. To have expected them to adapt to the Inuit way of life, that some have suggested, is rather silly, when they did have an alternative – leave.
What the Western Settlement Reveals about the Changing Climate
The Western settlement was smaller than the Eastern settlement and resided on the west coast of Greenland, 300 miles north of the Eastern settlement. Three churches, one large estate and 95 farms have been excavated in this location. Most of these sites that have been discovered lay under permafrost. A bishop of Greenland travelled there in the mid-14th century and recorded that the settlement was completely abandoned. Therefore, by AD 1350, the Western settlement was gone. That is exactly what one would expect considering that in a cooling climate, the northern community would have been the first one to become no longer viable for farming, and thus, abandoned.
Given the current climate found in where the Western settlement laid, this gives us a clue as to how much warmer this area of Greenland must have been 1,000 years ago. The centre of this Western settlement lies about 40 miles inland, east of the Greenland capital city of Nuuk. We do have a climate scheme for Nuuk:
Table 1. Average Monthly Temperatures in Celsius, 1961-1990, for Nuuk
This is a classic polar tundra climate, with maritime moderation. Over this 30-year period for which we have this record, it does snow all months of the year even though it may be in just trace amounts in the summer months. One cannot farm in such a climate, although a greenhouse might come in handy. As an aside, the climate in Nuuk for the past 15 years has been getting cooler than what the table above reflects.
What would it take to make Nuuk (the Western Norse settlement on Greenland) have a suitable climate in which to farm? I found that a minimum rise of 5 degrees C would do the trick:
Table 2. Average Monthly Temperatures in Celsius, increased by 5 degrees C for Nuuk
This is true “climate change.” A 5 degree Celsius rise in temperature would bring Nuuk from a polar tundra climate into a subpolar oceanic category, capable of growing trees, and the planting of crops and raising livestock in an agricultural setting. The subpolar oceanic climate is defined as having the coldest month average temperature not falling below the -3 degrees C mark, and having from one to three months with an average temperature of 10 degrees C or more.
Table 2 gives the temperature scheme as to what I contend the Greenland Western settlement must have had in temperatures, as a minimum, in order to support the large farming community just east of Nuuk for the three centuries it existed. It more than likely was even warmer. Just a rise of 7 degrees C would place Nuuk into an even warmer oceanic climate classification. As for the Greenland Eastern settlement that was 300 miles further south, I believe that it must have been warmer still than the Western settlement.
How could such warmth be possible? More than likely the North Atlantic Drift was strong enough that a part of it drove through the Labrador Sea, the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay, hugging the western coastline of Greenland. The era was part of the Medieval Warm Period, was it not? This map illustrates the scenario.
It worries me that there are people living today, and allegedly well-educated and intelligent people, who claim that Greenland was as cold if not colder 1,000 years ago, than it is today. I should like to show them the 95 excavated farms at the Western settlement site, many being dug out from under permafrost, and ask for an explanation as to how this could be? Now, how does one cultivate crops in a land of permafrost? Were the Norsemen farmers in the Western settlement growing ice to feed their livestock?
There are claims made today by some people giving the impression that one can do anything in Greenland today that the Vikings of old did.
For instance, some have claimed that the “barley is back.” If you look into this matter, you will find that someone claimed they are experimenting with growing barley in Greenland, and that is about it. The growing season is just not long enough still for that kind of crop to grow. It is relatively well established now that the Greenland Norse farmers did grow barley.
Some will point out that hay is now grown in Greenland. Yes, that is true, for it is. In the far south of Greenland, they do grow hay. Hay has a very short growing season and currently in Greenland, the cut hay must be wrapped in plastic right in the fields to keep it from spoiling. That was hardly a technique available for use by Medieval Norsemen. Regardless, most of the feed for Greenland livestock of today has to be shipped in from afar.
So yes, Greenland does have sheep, and so do the polar climates on the Falklands and Grand Terre of the Kerguelen Islands. The Norse settlements of Greenland had horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats and they had to be self-sufficient in growing the crops to feed them. There is a big difference here as to the extent and magnitude of Norse Greenlander farming that was done 1,000 years ago as compared to what is being done now, or can be done now for farming.
But does not Greenland have a forest of native trees? Oh yes it does. It is called theQinngua Valley with native willow, birch, alder and mountain ash trees. The trees can grow to… now hold your breath… to heights of 25 feet. They are probably some of the most scraggly looking trees I have ever seen that could easily be mistaken for simply overgrown bushes. It is still too cold to grow a real tree in Greenland, one that could soar to a “robust” height of 60 feet or more with a trunk around which could not be contained by the hug of one’s arms. It was essential that the Norse Greenlanders had access to an immediate supply of wood to have commenced and maintained their farming settlements for the centuries they lived on the island.
The Demise of the Greenland Norsemen
There is no mystery in the abandonment of Greenland by the Norwegians. No, it was not the Thule attacking them or various pirate raids. However, such events could have taken place, but there is no archaeological evidence to support them. The Black Plague could not have been the culprit either. The Plague hit Iceland in AD 402 and killed at least one-third of its population. By that time, the Greenlanders had been almost completely cut off from any communication with the European world, including Iceland. The Church abandoned Greenland in 1378 out of practicality for no ships could get through the sea ice between Iceland and Greenland safely. The Little Ice Age had no mercy. In essence, Greenland was forgotten, and the remnant simply left whenever they could, or, remained to die from an increasingly hostile climate.
As for the die-hard Greenlanders refusing to leave, their fate was sealed, and unfortunately, the last one did not turn out the lights, but rather, there was no one left to bury him:
“One such stoic was found lying face down on the beach of a fjord in the 1540s by a party of Icelandic seafarers, who like so many sailors before them had been blown off course on their passage to Iceland and wound up in Greenland. The only Norseman they would come across during their stay, he died where he had fallen, dressed in a hood, homespun woolens and seal skins. Nearby lay his knife, ‘bent and much worn and eaten away.’ Moved by their find, the men took it as a memento and carried it with them to show when at last they reached home.”
From Archaeology Online, last paragraph.