At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the northern most outpost of European civilization was a long-lived and well-established settlement. In a medieval world torn by political and cultural turmoil, by war and want, the Greenland colony of the Old Norse had for centuries stood as a bastion of conservative stability. Its Scandinavian farmers were preserving a way of life that had endured since the colony's founding in 985 by Erik the Red. It was small in numbers, with perhaps 6,000 inhabitants in all in two settlements, but still it looked like a permanent feature of European geography.
The Norwegian Viking's renegade ways were quickly displaced by an uncompromising social structure built on European ideas of respectability and wealth. While Erik held to the ancient Norse pantheon, his wife, his son, and his fellow colonists quickly converted to the new Christian faith. They sent a live polar bear to the King of Norway to induce him to send a bishop. They endowed the bishop with a large, prosperous farm and built a cathedral, churches, and a nunnery, although by the beginning of the fourteenth century, the bishops had found it more convenient to govern the colony from Rome.
The Norse farmers had developed an economy around the attributes of a landscape still dominated by glaciers and a climate controlled by the North Atlantic. First and foremost, they were livestock and dairy farmers, practicing a traditional husbandry that was common to Scandinavia. Through the cold winter, they stabled their animals indoors. In spring and summer, every patch of viable ground was used for pasture to sustain livestock through the growing season and to harvest for winter fodder. In the warmer seasons, they fished for cod and traveled up the western coast to hunt seals and caribou for food. They hunted walrus for fur and for their ivory tusks, their most important export to Iceland, Ireland, and Norway.
By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the workings of Earth already were turning against the Norse farmers of Greenland. To the north, pack ice was growing, threatening to close off the sea route to the summer hunting grounds. Increasingly frequent storms and encroaching sea ice were making the route between Europe, Iceland, and Greenland more and more dangerous, threatening to isolate the colony. Even for such a hardy people accustomed to severe winters, life was becoming intolerably hard. The old Norse farmers exhausted their supplies of food and fodder before the end of winter. Depleted and demoralized, they watched their young and elderly die first. In desperation, in violation of ancient Norse law, they started eating their dairy cattle. More desperate still, finally they ate their hunting dogs. Starting with the northernmost Western Settlement about 1350, they abandoned their farms. A century and a half later in the Eastern Settlement, nearly
500 years of European settlement came to an end and the Norse people disappeared from Greenland.
These farmers were not the only medieval people to feel the lethal power of changing climate. And advancing ice was not the worst of it. The change that began in the fourteenth century altered history in Europe and elsewhere for the better part of five centuries. Around the world, one weather-related disaster followed another. In Asia, torrential rains in 1332 led to floods that devastated China, causing the deaths of several million people. From midcentury, China lost 40 percent of its population, 40 million people, within 100 years. Along with the change in weather came another calamity. A virulent new strain of bubonic plague—the Black Death—emerged, and in the following decades, waves of the disease swept through Asia and Europe. In England and Europe, the winter and the long summer and autumn of 1316 saw almost constant rains that led to widespread crop disasters, spreading famine and disease. Starving peasants resorted to cannibalism.
The inviting climate that first encouraged the Europeans to settle Greenland was described by early paleoclimatologists as the Medieval Warm Period; the change that finally drove the Old Norse out is called the Little Ice Age. Although it is generally true that the several centuries before the fourteenth century were warmer than the several centuries after it, these names imply a climate record that is neater than the real pattern of the past. Conventional standards of measure reveal variations during the past 10,000 years as more subtle than the sharp lurches in temperature and precipitation that took place during the ice ages of the past. In fact, climate scientists used to think that the changes during the 10,000 years of the modern era, the Holocene, were too minor to be interesting subjects of research. But the methods of modern paleoclimatology that exposed the reality of abrupt climate change also illuminated the powerful role of climate variation in the record of human events.
A new level of detail was detected by Chet Langway even in the first Greenland ice climate profile, from the 411-meter Site 2 core, which he developed in the 1950s. Looking back 10 centuries to the year 934, Langway saw trends in snow accumulation and temperature that suggested snowfall increases as temperature rises. If this is so, Langway reasoned, "then the record in the deep core may be read as meaning that the temperature as well as the accumulation in AD 934 was similar to that of today. From AD 934, a slow decrease in temperature and accumulation appears to have begun which reached a minimum around the late 18th century; thereafter a gradual warming and increase in precipitation occurred [and are still occurring] today."
As the climate record was understood in more detail, the settlement histories of both Iceland and Greenland would be interpreted in new ways. Langway and Willi Dansgaard came across more detail with their oxygen isotope analyses of the 1,400-meter Camp Century core. In 1970, they reported on their study of ice that fell as snow during the last 800 years, although this study was not focused on historical events. They were looking for patterns, for "systematic oscillations" that might give clues to the causes of change and help predict future variations. Only parenthetically they observed "the 'little ice age'
1600-1730; and the long-lasting minimum in the 15th century, which might have been a contributory reason for the dying out of the Norsemen settlements in Greenland."
In 1975, Dansgaard and his Geophysical Isotope Laboratory colleagues attempted a more deliberate examination of the climate changes surrounding the rise and fall of Norse Greenland—a subject, he noted, that "has fascinated generations of historians, maybe because it is the only example of a well developed European society being completely extinguished in historical times." In an article in the journal Nature, Dansgaard attempted to correlate oxygen isotope variations in this ice core profile "with some well documented important events in the early Icelandic and Norse societies." This study represented the first attempt to match paleoclimate proxy information to recorded human history. Dansgaard and colleagues found in the polar ice new information about both the beginning and the end of the Norse colony.
Searching for an ideal site for its next deep-core operation, the Greenland Ice Sheet Project team, using its thermal drill, had been sinking test cores in a number of sites around the ice sheet. The summer of 1974 had produced an especially promising core at a location called Crête, 10,315 feet above sea level at the crest of the ice sheet in central Greenland. In the spring of 1975, in the journal Nature, the GISP team reported the results of an oxygen isotope analysis of a 404-meter Crête core.
First, Dansgaard threw new light on the old explanations for the apparently contradictory names of the two North Atlantic islands. Iceland is definitely greener than Greenland. Greenland's landscape is dominated to a much greater extent by ice. Indeed, the anonymous author of a thirteenth-century Norwegian text known as the "King's Mirror" blamed Greenland for Iceland's ice. "As to the ice that is found in Iceland," he wrote, "I am inclined to believe that it is a penalty which the land suffers for lying so close to Greenland; for it is to be expected that severe cold would come thence, since Greenland is ice-clad beyond all other lands."
Dansgaard observed how Iceland got its name from a Norwegian farmer's failed attempt to settle the island in about 865, during a "short cold period" detected by the GISP team. The disappointed farmer, having lost his cattle in a severe winter, returned to Norway and told how he had watched a fjord fill with sea ice. Students of geography have long been amused by the account of the naming of Greenland in the medieval sagas. Centuries after the fact, a chronicler in Iceland maintained that the Viking Erik the Red chose the name as a subterfuge in order to entice more would-be settlers from Iceland. But the oxygen isotope evidence in the polar ice offered another explanation. The discovery of Greenland in 982 came "at the end of a warm period longer than any that has occurred since," Dansgaard reported. The name Greenland at that time "probably described a reality So, the drastic climatic change late in the ninth century may be part of the reason why Iceland and Greenland did not get the opposite names, which would have been more natural had they been discovered simultaneously."
No doubt, the cold fourteenth century marked "the beginning of the tragic end," he wrote, although the reasons for the abandonment of the Western Settlement around 1350 and the disappearance of the Norse people from the Eastern Settlement a century later were not clear. The oxygen isotope curve "suggests that the climate became so cold in the fourteenth century that years of famine must have occurred frequently, as was the case in Iceland, particularly in the 1370s. On the other hand, the cold made whaling a good business for European mariners who may have assaulted the Osterbygd [Eastern Settlement]—at least Eskimo tales blame pirates for the extinction of the weakened Norse society. Nor can it be excluded that the plague, which came to Iceland in 1402, was transferred to Greenland by pirates." While climate alone may not account for what happened in Norse Greenland, Dansgaard wrote, "the impact of climate on human life stands out more and more clearly, particularly where the margin of survival is slim, whether in the polar regions or in the tropics."
From polar ice taken 20 years later from a core near Crête, another investigator would be able to discern conditions during individual seasons in developing a picture of the climate stresses faced by the Norse in Greenland in the fourteenth century. In the 1990s, Lisa K. Barlow used the stable isotopes of hydrogen, the other atom in the water molecule, to construct the same sort of temperature signal that the GISP team and others developed with the isotopes of oxygen. Like the stable oxygen isotopes, the differences in the ratios of the heavier and lighter hydrogen atoms in the water molecules reveal differences in temperature. The lighter hydrogen isotope evaporates at a slightly lower temperature. A rising proportion of the heavier hydrogen isotope deuterium in a sample of ice core signals a rising temperature.
In 1997, Barlow reported that the climate record, built from the hydrogen isotope signal from an ice core in central Greenland, suggested that the Norse settlers experienced above-average temperatures for the first 6 to 12 years after landing in 985 and that this was the longest period of "mild" weather for centuries to come. And according to the new isotope record, the fourteenth century was the coldest period in the region in 700 years. In particular, Barlow identified a 20-year period of especially cool summers, from 1343 to 1362—the very time when the Western Settlement is thought to have collapsed. "Norse farmers relied as much on summer fodder production to last through the winter as on a timely end to winter conditions," Barlow wrote in 1997. "Thus a period of cold summers may have reduced grass production, making the subsistence of the Norse Greenlanders even more precarious."
To be sure, "it got cold, and they died," as an anonymous medieval author described what happened in Norse Greenland, but Barlow and others maintain that climate variation tells only part of the story. She is a member of a team of researchers from a variety of scientific and scholarly specialties who investigated the history of Norse Greenland. The subject has been a battleground for competing interpretations by generations of researchers. The new team is trying to settle these old academic disputes and gain a clearer picture of what really happened in the fourteenth century in the Western Settlement and 150 years later in the Eastern Settlement.
To anthropologist Thomas H. McGovern, the rigid character of Norse society left it vulnerable to change. As it happened, he notes, while the Norse were losing their battle with the elements, the native Inuit were winning theirs, flourishing in a more mobile and adaptive culture of Arctic hunting. Their toggled harpoons, which open on a hinge after piercing the flesh, allowed the Inuit to successfully hunt seals through the ice during winter. Unlike the wooden Norse boats, the seal skin Inuit kayaks could be lifted and easily moved over the ice jamming the fjords. Even their clothing of fur and skin was warmer and more practical than the Norse woolens that were woven according to European fashion. The Norse increased the proportion of seafood in their diet and rearranged the rooms in their houses to take advantage of the body heat from their livestock, but these changes were not enough. The judgment of history would be that in the face of changing climate these European farmers were stuck in their ways, in their fixed abodes, in their property rights, in their royal taxes and church tithes, and in their belief that the way of life that had sustained them for so long would pull them through the current bad weather. And their leaders were preoccupied with matters of status and wealth.
Our fascination with the extinction of the Norse people in Greenland may be more than academic. Something about it haunts our history in ways that other calamities do not. Maybe it is because we modern observers of the Greenland colonists' "failure to adapt" have more in common with the Norse than with the Inuit. They are figures in shadow that we faintly recognize. Are we not as heavily invested in the idea of climate stability? Are we not as fixed in our ways, just as devoutly faithful to our own cultural imperatives? Those seeking answers to questions such as these finally arrive at a philosophical divide. In 1984, the English climate scholar Hubert H. Lamb called attention to "a general resistance in mankind since the modern scientific and technological revolution to the idea that our way of life may be drastically affected by natural changes and fluctuations in the physical environment. This attitude may hold dangers for the future. Our forefathers had a very different view, based on bitter experience of disasters from famine and disease."
Resistance to the idea was easier in the days when our vision of the past was so rudimentary that the 10,000 years of the modern Holocene period looked climatically stable and uninteresting. Early in the twentieth century, it seemed to geographer Ellsworth Huntington that he was finding the heavy hand of climate everywhere he looked in the historical record. He so overstated the case for "climate determinism" that the subject quickly fell out of fashion among scholars. Now polar ice profiles and other powerful climate proxies such as tree ring analyses are forcing interesting reevaluations of the past 10,000 years. The conclusion is hard to ignore: It has been a bumpy ride.
At the end of the fifteenth century, at a time when the home country and the Mother Church seem to have been entirely in the dark about the fate of the Greenlanders, another European explorer was setting sail on a new voyage of discovery. Christopher Columbus did not need to be warned about the hazards of the northerly route across the North Atlantic; but what he did not know was that while his more southerly route would avoid the treacherous northern ice, it would expose him to another powerful threat. The phenomenon of a hurricane was entirely unknown to the Old World. If European sailors of the day had seen the likes of the summertime Atlantic's marauding tropical storms and hurricanes, none had lived to tell about them.
The earliest reports of the devastating effects of a hurricane came to us from Columbus. Three of the ships that accompanied his second voyage were wrecked by hurricanes on the north coast of Hispaniola in 1494 and 1495. What if he had encountered such a storm on his first voyage and been caught in the open sea in the three tiny caravels in 1492? A conspicuous chapter of history might have gone quite differently. Of the Hispaniola experience, he wrote that "nothing but the service of God and the extension of the monarchy" could induce him to expose himself to such dangers.
Old World sailors had no idea where these monster storms came from or, more importantly, when they were likely to appear. The Spanish fleet would assemble in Havana each spring in preparation for the voyage to Spain. Customary fiestas and other activities there would extend their time of departure into the height of the hurricane season. In the century before the push for colonization, hurricanes haunted the gold-hungry Spanish, regularly sinking treasure-laden galleons plying Columbus's route. Just as sailing vessels do today, they set a course for the New World from the Canary Islands to Guadalupe, and they returned in a route north of the Sargasso Sea toward the Azores. Ponce de Leon encountered two shipwrecking hurricanes within a span of 13 days in the summer of 1508 off the coasts of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. A hurricane in October 1525 sank the first vessel sent to Mexico by Hernando Cortes, who had discovered gold there. In 1559, a hurricane wrecked the Spanish expedition sent to establish a colony near what is now Pensacola, Florida.
The climates of North America and their weather extremes were abiding mysteries to Europeans. Seeing only the likeness of their latitudes between the Old World and the New, the savants erroneously supposed a likeness of climate. Because they were in the same latitude, the French expected the lands of New France in Newfoundland to enjoy the same climate as central France. And New England, 10 to 12° South of old England, was expected to have milder weather. Instead, as the American weather historian David M. Ludlum observed in 1967, "winters were more severe than anticipated, and summers much hotter than anything experienced in the homeland." Later, of course, New England would be seen as a region controlled by continental climate factors rather than the maritime influences of the British Isles. Settlers were victims of more than just ignorance. New World colonies became pawns in the political struggles of Europe. To the English, Roanoke Island looked like a strategic outpost for raids on Spanish shipping out of Florida. Sir Walter Raleigh estimated that these rewards of privateering would finance the whole colonizing enterprise. Royal treasuries and private riches were at stake. The lavish descriptions of the wealth and wonders of the New World came from witnesses who pandered to the expectations of royal courts and private sponsors. The natives were friendly, food was plentiful, and land was free for the taking. The supposed salubriousness of the climate was just part of the pitch.
The first French settlers in North America felt "greatly deceived" by the descriptions they had been given of the climate of the new land. One writer described the "temperature of the climate" of Maine as "so temperate, as it seemeth to hold the golden mean." On arriving in Virginia, John Smith wrote that "heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitations." That such a description would come from the first leader of Jamestown in 1607 may tell more about the scruples of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Virginia Company than about conditions in Virginia at the time.
Despite Raleigh's attempts to conceal it, by 1607 most everyone in England had heard the truth about what heaven and earth had wrought upon his first efforts to establish a colony in Virginia. At Roanoke, just 130 miles south of Jamestown, three attempts had ended in one failure after another. Most recently, more than 117 English subjects— including soldiers and planters, 17 women, and 11 children—had vanished from Roanoke after 1587. The fresh mystery of their fate must have haunted some dreams in Jamestown.
The "Lost Colony of Roanoke" has been the subject of speculation by generations of historians, archaeologists, and other researchers. Explanations have been hard to prove, of course, but easy enough to come by. At a time when the colony would critically need food from nearby natives, relations with neighboring tribes had already been poisoned. The first English colonizers, among them bellicose privateers and military men, were openly at war with the natives when they quit the place and returned to England with Sir Francis Drake in the summer of 1586. When the second group of colonists arrived in July
1587, they found that all 15 soldiers who had been left behind to secure the fort had been killed. Retaliating for this offense, the new colonists burned a nearby village and mistakenly slaughtered a group of friendly Croatan natives.
It could also be said that the colony was sacrificed to the greater good of England. In August, when the colonial governor, James White, returned to England for new supplies, he found that all ships were commandeered for the battle against the Spanish Armada in
1588, By the time he finally was able to return in 1590, the colony had been abandoned and White could find no trace of the settlers, including his daughter and newborn granddaughter. This is the traditional explanation for the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony. In 1998, however, a team led by climatologist David W. Stahle and archaeologist Dennis B. Blanton developed a new and terribly plausible explanation. Like the Old Norse of Greenland, these earliest English settlers were unlucky victims of rapid climate changes. Stahle took tree ring cores from 800-year-old bald cypresses taken from the Roanoke Island area of North Carolina and the Jamestown area of Virginia, reconstructed precipitation and temperature chronologies, and concluded that the timing of the early English colonizing efforts could not have been worse.
The settlers of the Lost Colony landed at Roanoke in the summer of the most extreme growing-season drought in 800 years. "This drought persisted for 3 years, from 1587 to
1589, and is the driest 3-year episode in the entire 800-year reconstruction," Stahle and his colleagues reported in the journal Science. A map shows that "the Lost Colony drought affected the entire southeastern United States but was particularly severe in the Tidewater region near Roanoke." The authors surmised that the unsuspecting Croatan who were shot and killed by the colonists that summer were scavenging the abandoned village because they already were short of food.
"The tree-ring reconstruction also indicates that the settlers of Jamestown Colony had the monumental bad luck to arrive in April 1607, during the driest 7-year period in 770
years," wrote Stahle. The ragged story of the early settlers of Jamestown is better documented of course, although in seventeenth-century England, Raleigh and his commercial cohorts were loathe to make it known. Like their Roanoke colleagues, the Jamestown settlers did not know what the Algonquin natives knew about the drought and its effect on their food supplies and on the quality of water in the York and James Rivers in the Tidewater peninsula of Chesapeake Bay. Most of them would not survive their ignorance of these things—and their bad luck.
First came the long hot summer of 1607. Having arrived in May, weakened by their long sea voyage, many fell victim to fevers from diseases that prevail in heat. The warm autumn was followed by terrible cold. When the first supply ship arrived in midwinter, it found only 32 of the original 105 settlers still alive. In January the entire town was destroyed by fire. Captain John Smith later wrote: "Many of our old men diseased; and [many] of our new, for want of lodging, perished."
Soon relief was on the way. Food and other supplies would come from the Virginia Company in England. How many sick and starving emigrants must have prayed for its arrival. The Virginia Company in London provisioned nine vessels that left England on June 2, 1609, under the command of Admiral Sir George Somers in the flagship Sea Adventure. Sailing south of the tropic of Cancer, the seamen found themselves sweltering in the humid heat. Aboard the vessel Blessing, Captain Gabriel Archer reported that "by the fervent heat many of our men fell sick" and from just two ships, 32 bodies were thrown overboard. On July 24, as the relief flotilla labored within a few days of the shores of North America, the ships sailed into the maw of a hurricane. Aboard the Sea Adventure, William Strachey recalled it as "a dreadful storm," violent beyond imagining. "Our clamours drowned in the winds and the winds in thunder," he wrote to a lady friend. "The sea swelled above the clouds and gave battle to the heavens." After four days of such violence, its 140 men exhausted by constant bailing, the Sea Adventure found itself sailing alone. Admiral Somers spotted land, the so-called Isles of Devils, known to mariners since 1511 but avoided for their rings of treacherous reefs and reputation for stormy winds. Miraculously, all aboard the Sea Adventure survived the landing, although the vessel was damaged beyond repair.
Meanwhile, seven battered ships in the Virginia Company flotilla managed to stay their course and make Jamestown by late August. Rather than relief, however, the 400 surviving passengers, sickly and weakened from the terrible voyage, instead brought greater burden. Much of their food supply had been thrown overboard when the storm threatened to sink the vessels. The rest was waterlogged and ruined. Another crisis winter, including another especially cold month, followed. What happened then John Smith retold in 1624.
"Nay, so great was our famine, that a savage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort took him up againe and eat him, and so did diverse one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs," Smith wrote. "And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered (salted) her, and had eaten part of her before it was knowne, for which hee was executed, as hee well deserved.. This was that time, which still to this day we call the starving time, it were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured."
The men and women of the Sea Adventure, meanwhile, found the uninhabited Isles of Devils "abundantly fruitful." They feasted on wild pigs that had been left by the Spanish and other plentiful game and enjoyed a temperate climate. Strachey called it "the richest, healthfullest and pleasing land ... as man has ever set foot upon." From the accident of shipwreck, a permanent settlement was established. The islands were known for a time as Somers Islands, although they were later named Bermuda in honor of the Spanish seafarer Juan Bermudez, who first plotted them on a map. Still Bermuda's coat of arms features the wreck of the Sea Adventure, and still the island celebrates Somers Day on July 28. The healthy and industrious settlers fashioned two smaller boats from the wreckage of the Sea Adventure, and the following summer most of them finally made their way to Jamestown, where they found 60 gaunt survivors of the starving time.
"Viewing the fort," wrote William Strachey, "we found the palisades torn down, the ports open, the gates from off the hinges, and the empty houses (which owners had taken from them) rent up and burnt, rather than the dwellers would step into the woods a stone's cast off from them to fetch other firewood. And it is true, the Indians killed as fast without, if our men stirred but beyond the bounds of their blockhouse."
The saga of the Bermuda shipwreck of the Sea Adventure became well known in London. Passenger Sylvester Jourdain wrote a lengthy account that was a literary hit in 1612. Also widely circulated was a detailed letter by Strachey, who happened to be an investor in London's Globe Theatre, where William Shakespeare was a partner. Soon thereafter, Shakespeare wrote one of his finest plays, a story about disaster at sea, a shipwreck, and a storm. He called it The Tempest.
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