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Figure 4.6 The yearly activities of the Norse communities Source: McGovern (1980)

drift ice in the Denmark Strait and Danish-Norwegian economic and political realignments both played their part in the diminishing trade (Grove, 1988; McGovern, 1981).

The Norse colony disappeared due to changes in the climate, politics and economics, had they not all coincided the Norse colony may have survived. But this solution ignores the possibility of human response to climate change. The success of the Innuit shows that the deteriorating climate did not make Greenland inhabitable. The Norwegian settlers in Finnmark (the furthest province in modern Norway) thrived in the deteriorating climatic conditions (Brown, 1994). Had the Norse settlers chosen to abandon their inner fjord pastures for the coastal oceanic zone and a more maritime economy they might have survived. However, archaeological evidence shows they persisted with their settlement pattern and their seasonal dual economy. They built larger byres and store houses to sustain them through the winter. The Norse did not take on other skills such as skin boat building (rather than the traditional wooden boats) which may have helped them exploit other resources such as the Ringed seal colonies. The Norse stuck to European fashions, rather than the skin clothes of the Innuit. In contrast, the Innuit used what part of Norse culture they required. The Norse society continued 'elaborating its churches rather than its hunting skills' (McGovern, 1981). In 1342 when Bardsson took up stewardship of the West colony there were 90 farms and 4 churches but by about 1350 it was deserted. GISP2 ice core data show that some of the coldest years were between 1343 and 1362. Some researchers believe the collapse was catastrophic. The west colony began eating their cows, which was forbidden under Norse law, and their hunting dogs before finally starving to death. Others suggest a less harrowing end with the western settlers packing their bags and moving to the eastern settlement (Pringle, 1997). The East colony disappeared more slowly but was gone by 1500. Whaling by Europeans had become more popular and it is possible that an already weakened East colony was attacked by pirates. The pirates may also have carried the plague which is known to have arrived in Iceland in 1402 (Grove, 1988). Evidence for a gradual deterioration in health comes from the average height, which is often taken as an indicator of nutritional intake. The average height of the men buried in the settlement declined from 5' 10" when they first arrived to 5' 5" by its end (Lamb, 1982).

When the Norse first arrived they had shown tremendous flexibility and ingenuity, modifying the Icelandic economic model to their own needs. Later on, however, they appeared unable to make the neccessary changes required to cope with the deteriorating climate and economic stresses. McGovern (1981) blames this increasing inflexibility on the growth of hierarchy and elitism within the Norse community. When there is little stress on a society there is no need to gather data, or to manage. As a society comes under climatic or economic stress, there is a need for more data. However, there is a limit to how much data one person can process. People begin to specialize and the hierarchy becomes more stratified. The more stress, the more elaborate becomes the hierarchical structure to process the environmental and economic data. This increases the distance between social classes. Decisions will be made which benefit the elite and not necessarily the individual farmer. In order to justify this an increasing mystification of the elite was needed and this was probably achieved by increasing the power of the church. As the distance between farmer and elite grows, there is a danger that management effort goes towards maintaining the hierarchy, increasing conformity and ritual. If the elite managers perform well, searching out additional resources and alternative technologies, such as that of the Innuit, this separation can work to the benefit of the society as a whole, but the elite in Greenland clung to their rituals. McGovern (1981) suggests that a society which believes that lighting more candles to St Nicholas will have a greater effect on the spring seal hunt than more and better boats is in deep trouble. The last records from Norse Greenland are of a Christian marriage and a burning for witchcraft.

What this study shows is that climatic, economic and political change can all put stresses on a society which may threaten its survival. What is equally important, however, is the response to these stresses. It might be argued that western Europeans have a superior attitude to other cultures. The Norse settlers spurned Thule culture preferring to cling to Norwegian values, even if it meant dying in the process (Pringle, 1997). There are studies that reveal other cultures which also appeared more concerned with maintaining traditions than adapting to a changing environment. The Mayan civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula in central America flourished between 300 to 800 ad (Lamb, 1982). Despite the dense tropical rainforest they were an agriculture-based society. Using a sophisticated network of drainage and irrigation channels they farmed extensively in the lowlands of Guatemala and Honduras. The forest at this time was easier to keep at bay as the area was drier than it is now. Climatic reconstructions from oxygen isotope and sediment core analysis from Lake Chichancanab, Mexico show that between 800 and 1000 ad an even drier climatic regime set in (Hodell et al., 1995). By 1000 the Mayan society collapsed. It would appear that the society was tied in to a particular agricultural system that could not respond when the climate changed (Pain, 1994). Climate was only part of the problem. The society's inability to change, to acknowledge the real problem was the reason they did not survive. They continued to consume on the same level they always had. Sounds familiar? In our own global society the response to stresses may be equally important when we come to tackle global warming and the potential economic and political change.


Climate change in historical times challenges some of the modern preconceptions of our supremacy over the natural world. It questions whether our civilizations and societies are as stable as we like to think. While our society becomes more and more able to cope with short-term extreme weather events, society's ability to cope with major climatic events may decline due to its very elaborate structure (Wigley et al., 1981). Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the influence of climate change on society remains a contentious issue and sadly, until recently, a slightly neglected one. It falls between so many disciplines and is often the prerogative of a lone researcher rather than a large group. Many facets of potential studies into the issue are unattractive to those that would fund scientific research, yet it can provide fascinating insights as to how humans have struggled not just with climate change but the mores of their society. If global warming is to come then these are the challenges that we face, not just the temperature and precipitation changes, but also our perceptions of them and our reactions to them as a society.

Chapter 2 noted how the early work on the greenhouse theory in the late eighteenth century had been carried out to find a reason for the quaternary glacial cycles. The greenhouse theory, however, was abandoned by the early twentieth century. It was thought that water vapour absorbed most of the outgoing infra-red radiation in the region of the carbon dioxide absorption bands. Therefore the effect of changing levels of carbon dioxide was immaterial. Also, there was the perception that climate, at least on historical time-scales, was constant. It was a scientist called Callender who revived the debate in 1938. He made a direct link between rising carbon dioxide levels from anthropogenic activity and increasing global temperatures (Callender, 1938). This view was dismissed and heavily criticized. Although world-wide meteorological measurements now pointed to a world with a changing climate, the concept that humans could change nature in this way seemed remarkable. Furthermore, it was widely accepted that any excess carbon dioxide produced by industrial activity would be absorbed by the oceans. In 1957 this view was challenged in an article by Revelle and Suess. They concluded that the oceans were not absorbing all the excess carbon dioxide and, although the biosphere was absorbing some carbon dioxide, levels in the atmosphere would rise by 20 to 40 per cent in the next few decades. This led to the establishment, in 1958, of the regular monitoring of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Since then, although global warming has remained a hotly contested issue, its importance as a scientific and political concern has continued to grow in leaps and bounds.


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