Ecology of the Viking Age
By Rachel Carraway
Major climate changes were taking place as the Vikings were gaining power. Global mean temperatures had risen approximately 0.2 degrees above average (NOAA). This period of time is referred to as the Medieval Warm Period or MWP. This lasted for about 500 years, from 800 A.D. to 1300 A.D. (NOAA) Some places experienced major droughts, other places, such as Europe and the North Atlantic, enjoyed a time of mild winters and warm summers (Fagan, 2008, loc 331). The Gulf Stream current brings warm water to the North Atlantic, which tempers the climate today. During the MWP, this deep ocean current enabled ice free travel around the North Atlantic and moved the sea ice limit 60 mi further north, clear the shores around Iceland and Greenland (Fagan, 2008, pg 90). The climate was so mild in Europe, wine in large quantities, was exported to France from England (Fagan, 2008, loc 351). The trees moved further north and the tree line was much higher than today (Berglund, 1991, pg 82). Lake cores show many trees were removed to make way for farmland (Berglund, 1991, pg 82).
The warmer climate led to population booms across Europe, more than doubling from 35 million to 80 million (Fagan, 2008, pg 26). In the Scandinavian countries, many young men, lacking opportunities, sought their fortune at sea (Fagan, 2008, pg 88). The Vikings began to expand. Some of their tales were recorded into sagas. Navigation and sailing skills were passed from father to son, never written down but used constantly (Fagan, 2000, loc 172). After settling Northern Scotland and the Faeroe Islands, they moved on to Iceland about 874 A.D. (Fagan, 2008, pg 90) This first settlement was dated using ash for dating the deposits, called tephrachronology (McGovern, 2007, pg 28). The mild temperatures allowed the settlers to grow hay and barley. Vikings were primarily farmers who brought cows, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, and pigs to their settlements (McGovern, 2007, pg 29). These pastures were symbols of wealth (McGovern, 2007, pg 29). During the winters, the Vikings fished for cod and hunted seals off the ice-free coast (Fagan, 2008, pg 90). Greenland was settled by Eirik the Red in 985 A.D. (Fagan, 2008, pg 90). Inuits traded ivory for iron with the Viking settlers (Fagan, 2008, pg 102). The ivory was sent back to Norway as tithes for the Catholic Church (Fagan, 2008, pg 104).
Then, the climate began to cool.The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is a combination of air current patterns and deep ocean circulation, like the Gulf Stream. This is what helps keep Northern Europe cloaked in mild weather. The Gulf Stream drops an equivalent of 100 Amazon rivers into the North Atlantic (Fagan, 2000, loc 686). When the current speeds up, the North Atlantic is warmer. This includes Greenland, Iceland, and Europe. When the current slows or even stops, the North Atlantic is cold. This is one of the many causes scientists believe are responsible for what is now known as the Little Ice Age (LIA) (Fagan, 2000, pg 29).
When the NAO slowed, Greenland and Iceland began cooling as early as 1203 A.D (Fagan, 2000, pg 28) Glaciers advanced across Europe and crops failed. Weather patterns were highly unstable. From year to year, the populations didn’t know what to expect. Travel in the North Atlantic waters were always unpredictable but during the LIA, it was even more treacherous. Winds and ice destroyed any boat unlucky enough to be caught out in it (Fagan, 2000, loc 727). The Church on the mainland, sent a representative to the Western Settlement to check on them sometime around 1350 (Fagan, 2000, loc 780). It was a ghost town. There was no one alive. Inside the long houses, hooves of animals were found in food piles as well as bones from prized hunting dogs. Starvation, due to years trying to compete with the changing weather, killed off the settlers (Fagan, 2000, loc 789). Changes in political alliances, combining with the fish migrating southward, ended the relationship between Iceland and the mainland (Fagan, 2000, loc 922).
The human race has survived many climate fluctuations but for the first time, we have a record of what happens when the climate changes. The Viking Age was ushered in due to a time of plenty but was ended by not by occupation from an outside power or internal corruption. It ended with a whimper of stomach pains. Starvation and isolation ended a vast power and made their disappearance more fascinating. How could such a strong people end so suddenly? It is in their stories and culture, their sagas, that we continue to live an such adventurous life.