‘Greenland used to be green’–Don’t judge a book by its cover, much less a land by its name
(Part of the How to Talk to a Global Warming Skeptic guide)
Objection: When the Vikings settled it, Greenland was a lovely, hospitable island, not the frozen wasteland it is today. It was not until the Little Ice Age that it got so cold they abandoned it.
Answer: First, Greenland is part of a single region. It can not be necessarily taken to represent a global climate shift. See the post on the Medieval Warm Period for a global perspective on this time period. Briefly, the available proxy evidence indicates that global warmth during this period was not particularly pronounced, though some regions may have experienced greater warming than others.
Second, a quick reality check shows that Greenland’s ice cap is hundreds of thousands of years old and covers over 80% of the island. The vast majority of land not under the ice sheet is rock and permafrost in the far north. How different could it have been just 1,000 years ago?
Below is a brief account of the Viking settlement, based on Jared Diamond’s “Collapse“.
Greenland was called Greenland by Erik the Red (was he red?), who was in exile and wanted to attract people to a new colony. He thought you should give a land a good name so people would want to go there! It likely was a bit warmer when he landed for the first time than it was when the last settlers starved due to a number of factors — climate change, or at least some bad weather, a major one.
But it was never lush, and their existence was always harsh and meager, especially due to the Viking’s disdain for other peoples and ways of living. They attempted to live a European lifestyle in an arctic climate, side by side with Inuit who easily outlasted them. They starved surrounded by oceans and yet never ate fish! (Note: this was not a typical European behavior, and is a bit of a mystery to this day.)
Instead of hunting whales in kayaks, they farmed cattle, goats, and sheep — despite having to keep them in a barn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a full 5 months out of the year. It was a constant challenge to get enough fodder for the winter. Starvation of the animals was frequent, emaciation routine. Grazing requirements and growing fodder for the winter led to over-production of pastures, erosion, and the need to go further and further afield to sustain the animals. Deforestation for pastures and firewood proceeded at unsustainable rates. After a couple of centuries, it led to such desperate measures as cutting precious sod for housing construction and even burning it for cooking and heating fuel.
When finally confronted with several severe winters in a row, they, along with the little remaining livestock, simply starved before spring arrived.
The moral of the story for the climate controversy? Much as you can not judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge the climate of Greenland by its name.
A bit of related trivia, and further indication of the Vikings’ stubborn reluctance to learn from the Inuit: there is no evidence of any trade whatsoever, despite centuries of cohabitation. In fact, the first of only three Norse accounts of encounters with the natives refers to them as “skraelings” (wretches), and describes matter of factly how strangely they bleed when stabbed. How’s that for diplomacy?
See also the entry on Vineland if it happens to come up.
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