9/22/2017 Peter Durantine

Greenland Research: Was Climate a Factor in the Disappearance of the Norse?

Igaliku is a small town of about 50 inhabitants near Greenland’s Tunulliark Fjord that sits on a peninsula jutting from the country’s southern coast. Amid its treeless, rocky terrain and cold glacial lakes last summer, a Franklin & Marshall student-faculty research team collected environmental data.

“Greenland’s pretty barren,” said Jared Brush, a senior geoscience major. “Its small towns, some with as few as 20 people, are very spread out. To get anywhere, you go by boat.”

At abandoned Norse settlements around modern-day Igaliku and Qassiasuk, Brush and Professor of Geosciences Andrew De Wet conducted field observations and collected samples from lakes and associated watersheds to learn why the Norse of Greenland disappeared in the late 1400s.

“Various causes for this disappearance have been proposed by scholars, including climate change, disease, conflicts with the Thule (who arrived in 1300), and economic factors,” De Wet said. “Very likely, there was a combination of factors, but which ones were most important?”

  • Professor De Wet and Brush near one of Greenland's many lakes, where they conducted some of their research.

The F&M team’s climate-related work is part of a larger project with the University of Massachusetts to pinpoint the Norse’s fate. Field methods used as part of the project included time-interval sediment loggers, sediment traps, groundcover mapping, and water composition profiles using a hydrolab.

“It’s a two-and-a-half-foot long tube-shaped instrument that you calibrate and put in the water to get all kinds of readings – acidity levels, salinity, depth, temperature,” Brush said. “We spent all day in this paddleboat going up the lake one way and then across it using this hydrolab to gather that data.”

Brush’s task, to characterize current conditions in the area of the former Norse settlements, will accompany other researcher’s data, such as organic compounds collected from the lakes. An analysis of the data will help understand how the climate changed in the past, De Wet said.

“The gist of the project is to characterize the conditions in and around the lake now,” De Wet said. “The big project is to understand the relationship between Norse settlements and climate, in particular temperature variations.”

Another aspect of Brush’s research was commanding a drone to collect images that he integrated into a Geographic Information Systems database and combined with satellite imagery to create 3D models of the Norse settlement ruins and surrounding lake topography.

Such visualization, De Wet said, “provides quantitative information for our research.”

Whether climate proves significant in the Norse’s disappearance remains a question, but in some regions, climate change’s biggest drawback may not be temperature.

“What we call climate is a complicated thing,” he said. “Getting rain may be way more important to them than getting warmer or colder.”

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