Vikings may have fled Greenland to escape rising seas

In 1721, a Norwegian missionary set sail for Greenland in the hopes of converting the Viking descendants living there to Protestantism. When he arrived, the only traces he found of the Nordic society were ruins of settlements that had been abandoned 300 years earlier.

There is no written record to explain why the Vikings left or died out. But a new simulation of Greenland’s coastline reveals that as the ice sheet covering most of the island started to expand around that time, sea levels rose drastically, researchers report December 15 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in New Orleans.

These shifting coastlines would have inundated grazing areas and farmland, and could have helped bring about the end of the Nordic way of life in Greenland, says Marisa Borreggine, a geophysicist at Harvard University.

Greenland was first colonized by Vikings in 985 by a group of settlers in 14 ships led by Erik the Red, who had been banished from neighboring Iceland for manslaughter. Erik and his followers settled across southern Greenland, where they and their descendants hunted for seals, grazed livestock, built churches and traded walrus ivory with European mainlanders.

The settlers arrived during what’s known as the Medieval Warm Period, when conditions across Europe and Greenland were temperate for a handful of centuries (SN: 7/24/19). But by 1350, the climate had started taking a turn for the worse with the beginning of the Little Ice Age, a period of regional cooling that lasted well into the 19th century.

Researchers have long speculated that a rapidly changing climate could have dealt a blow to Greenland’s Norse society. The island probably became much colder in the last 100 years of Norse occupation, says paleoclimatologist Boyang Zhao at Brown University in Providence, R.I, who was not involved in the new research. Lower temperatures could have made farming and raising livestock more difficult, he says. 

These lower temperatures would have had another impact on Greenland: the steady expansion of the island’s ice sheet, Borreggine and colleagues say.

Though rising sea levels usually go hand in hand with ice melting from ice sheets, oceans do not rise and fall uniformly in every place, Borreggine says. Around Greenland, sea level tends to rise when the ice sheet there grows.

This is for two main reasons: First, ice is heavy. The sheer weight of the ice sheet pushes the land it rests on down, meaning that as the ice sheet grows, more land is submerged. Second is gravity. Being massive, ice sheets exert some gravitational pull on nearby water. This makes the seawater around Greenland tilt upward toward the ice, meaning that water closer to the coast is higher than water in the open ocean. As the ice sheet grows, that pull becomes even stronger, and sea level close to the coast rises further.

Simulating the impact of the weight of the ice and its tug on Greenland’s waters, Borreggine and their colleagues found that sea level rose enough to flood the coast by hundreds of meters in some areas. Between the time the Vikings arrived and when they left, there was “pretty intense coastal flooding, such that certain pieces of land that were connected to each other were no longer connected,” they say.  

Today, some Viking sites are being inundated as a result of the overall rise in global sea level from climate change, which is being only marginally offset around Greenland by its melting ice sheet. Something similar could have happened back in the 14th and 15th centuries, destroying land that the Norse relied on for farming and grazing, Borreggine says.

“Previous theories about why Vikings left have really focused on the idea that they all died because it got really cold, and they were too dumb to adapt,” Borreggine says. But they say that archaeological digs have revealed a far more nuanced story, showing that Greenland’s Norse people did change their lifestyle by increasingly relying on seafood in the last century of their occupation.

But learning to adapt may have been too difficult in the face of an increasingly harsh landscape. The idea that rising sea levels may have been one of these challenges has merit, Zhao says, noting that the reasons why the Vikings disappeared from Greenland is nuanced.

As the climate changed, for example, these people may have also found themselves increasingly cut off from trade routes as the season for thick sea ice extended. And by the mid-14th century, the Black Plague was tearing through Europe, cutting into the Vikings’ biggest market for walrus ivory.

“Norse people came and left,” Zhao says. “But there are still a lot of unsolved questions,” including why exactly they left, he says.

The last written record of this society is a letter describing a wedding in 1408. A few years later, that couple moved to Iceland and started farming. Why the pair chose to leave is lost to history, but, as the new research suggests, sea level rise may have been part of the equation. 

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