Sorry, Vikings: You Didn’t Flee Greenland Because of Little Ice Age

New study of giant glacier in Greenland finds the Vikings hung on as it advanced on their camp. There was some other reason they abandoned ship

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Glaciers in Greenland.
Glaciers in Greenland.Credit: DEA / M. SANTINI / De Agostini/Getty Images
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Were the Vikings maligned? Have we misinterpreted their flight from Greenland in the mid-15th century, after five centuries of colonization? Did they not flee because it got too cold, as has been postulated? Do we owe their spirits an apology?

We may do, based on a groundbreaking paper on something else entirely – the advance of a landlocked glacier in Greenland during the Little Ice Age in the Late Medieval period.

The paper published in the journal Geology isn’t about the reputedly fearsome Norse mariners. It’s about glaciology in the era of climate change and how the team deduced what the glacier experienced centuries ago.

But pursuant to the research, lead author Danni Pearce of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences suggests that neither the intensifying chill nor the advance of a vast glacier to within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of their settlement dismayed the hardy Vikings. They did leave Greenland after the onset of the Little Ice Age but it was decades, at least, after the cold began to worsen. 

The Little Ice Age is an oddly controversial period that was not a global ice age but a protracted cold period following the anomalous Medieval Warm Period. The controversies include when the Little Ice Age began, when it ended, and how cold it got. For the purposes of this article, we shall ignore the arguments and say that from sometime in the 13th or 14th century it got significantly colder in the northern hemisphere – mainly the North Atlantic region – for centuries.

How much is significantly colder? Maybe 2 to 4 degrees Celsius on average, depending on the location. Not impressed? You should be: all the havoc climate change has been wreaking in recent years is from a little over 1-degree-Celsius difference in average temperature.

There is no controversy about what ensued from the downturn in temperature: stormy weather, temperature spikes, widespread crop failures, and violence, sickness and death. And the northern ice that had been in retreat since the Last Glacial Maximum reversed direction and advanced at least in some areas.

Now, the Vikings of Greenland were not suspected of a bucolic lifestyle, though they did grow some barley for bread and beer. But they reached the island during a particularly mild period. A previous study based on insect life in Greenland – flies, specifically – supports the theory that when the Vikings came around the year 985, the weather was pretty wonderful by the standards of Arctic Circle environs.

Hvalsey Church, from the late Viking period in GreenlandCredit: Number 57 at English Wikipedia

The balmy weather, which was also probably marked by clouds of mosquitoes, was not to last. After around 500 years of warm weather, the Little Ice Age descended.

Why? Again, there are arguments but there were apparently a host of causes as the universe is a complicated place: from orbital and solar cycles to heightened volcanism, and even possibly the patterns of human fortunes. Some even tie the plague into the mix: as people died in droves, the forests in the north could recover; when populations increased in the northern hemisphere, they deforested their habitat. Tree cover affects the planet’s reflectivity. (Others reverse the sick chicken and its diseased egg, and blame the plague on the climate change.)

Anyway, some five centuries after the Vikings conquered Greenland from nobody in particular, they left, abandoning the isle to the auks. In 2019, scholars postulated it simply got too cold (and hot – the weather swings intensified in the Little Ice Age); the glaciers were bearing down on their settlements on the coast; they had been dependent on trade with their homelands and the market for their key exports, such as narwhal and walrus ivory, evaporated.

That may have been key, because the new study reveals that during the Little Ice Age, the Kangiata Nunaata Sermia glacier advanced, a lot. Even before the Little Ice Age peak, the glacier had advanced to within 5 kilometers of a Viking settlement, Pearce and the team say. “Even though KNS was rapidly coming down the fjord, it did not seem to affect the Norse,” Pearce says.

She and the team have a theory about the inhabitants’ stout resilience in the face of the approaching ice river. Namely this: At present, the fjord into which Kangiata empties is a riot of icebergs calving off the glacier. But the fact is the Greenland ice sheet and glacier are melting fast and retreating because of global warming.

Back then, the ice river was advancing by around 115 meters (nearly 380 feet) a year they estimate, which means it wasn’t shedding icebergs. Ergo, the fjord waters would have been lovely and free of floating obstacles, which would have suited the fishing, hunting Vikings beautifully.

“So we have this counterintuitive notion that climate cooling and glacier advance might have actually helped the Norse in this specific circumstance and allowed them to navigate more of the fjord more easily,” Pearce says.

So why did they leave? Couldn’t grow barley for beer any more? Maybe, but the team suggests it wasn’t the cold, nor the incoming ice, but likely a combination of economic factors.

Reconstructed 11th-century Viking longship Credit: AP

The point of their research wasn’t to rehabilitate the image of Norse resilience; it was to study the ice. Kangiata is the biggest tidewater glacier in Greenland, which simply means that it isn’t landbound but reaches the sea. Like other tidewater glaciers these days, Kangiata is retreating, melting, doing badly. Global warming in the Arctic Circle has been much fiercer than elsewhere and tidewater glaciers in Greenland have experienced widespread retreat.  

Specifically, a 2014 paper estimated that Kangiata was at its maximum at the late part of the Little Ice Age, around 1761. From that peak, Kangiata has retreated by 23 meters, estimate Pearce and the team.

Let us share in their scholarly triumph, as reflected in their description of the challenges they describe facing: identifying and reconstructing the historic advance of glaciers is exceptionally difficult, the team explains, because glaciers destroy or reshape everything in their path as they move. So what Kangiata did 500 years ago is quite the challenge to identify, but they did – including by exploring the ground on foot.

Why does any of this matter? Vikings, we salute ye anew and beg your posthumous pardon for doubting your hardiness. But the real crux is the revelation that glaciers can advance just as fast when conditions turn cold, as they are melting now.

The team elucidated that as the Little Ice Age began, Kangiata advanced by 115 meters a year, which is in the ballpark of its present rate of retreat. This is crucial information in our age of climate change, which could theoretically also include future cool spells that might hopefully help some ice regain some lost territory. The more data we have, the better equipped we will be to try to avert disaster.

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