Sunday, August 03, 2008

Gotta be careful

I want to be sure I don't misrepresent the story about Greenland. It's not as if Greenland was a temperate oasis in the middle ages--any more than that Iceland was an arctic deep-freezer when it was named only a few years before.

Unlike the gentleman who suggests Greenland got its name due to its supposedly mild climate, no reputable historian I have read has ever suggested Eric the Red named it as he did in order accurately to communicate its beauty. Rather, the name itself was a kind of marketing ruse.

However, the fact that Greenland was never as idyllic as the name might imply doesn't mean, either, that it suffered anywhere near as rocky, barren or brutal a climate as it has in the more recent past.

I found descriptions of some of the solid, archeological evidence for a milder climate in an excellent article called The Fate of Greenland's Vikings by Dale Mackenzie Brown.

According to Brown, when archeologists have dug down in the right places, beneath "the permafrost and . . . windblown glacial sand," they have found the remains of a once-thriving European-founded colony in which people lived in stone-and-turf houses, and established dairy and sheep farms. The farms, apparently, were rather prosperous. Indeed, so prosperous that, in the middle of the 12th century, the community sent an emissary to get them a bishop for their church.

The emissary was successful. However,
By the middle of the fourteenth century, [the Church] owned two-thirds of the island's finest pastures, and tithes remained as onerous as ever, some of the proceeds going to the support of the Crusades half way around the world and even to fight heretics in Italy. Church authorities, however, found it increasingly difficult to get bishops to come to the distant island. Several clerics took the title, but never actually went there, preferring to bestow their blessings from afar.

Life went sour for the Greenlanders in other ways. The number of Norwegian merchant vessels arriving in their ports, though only one or two a year in the best of times, dropped until none came at all. . . .

As the Greenlanders' isolation from Europe grew, they found themselves victims of a steadily deteriorating environment. Their farmland, exploited to the full, had lost fertility. Erosion followed severe reductions in ground cover. The cutting of dwarf willows and alders for fuel . . . deprived the soil of its anchor of roots. Pollen analysis shows a dramatic decline in these species during the Viking years. In addition, livestock probably consumed any regenerating scrub. Overgrazing, trampling, and scuffing by the Norsemen's sheep, goats and cattle, the core of the island's livelihood, left the land debased.

Greenland's climate began to change as well; the summers grew shorter and progressively cooler, limiting the time cattle could be kept outdoors and increasing the need for winter fodder. . . .

There is architectural evidence for the climate change:
Over the decades the drop in temperature seems to have had an effect on the design of the Greenlanders' houses. Originally conceived as single-roomed structures, like the great hall at Brattahlid, they were divided into smaller spaces for warmth, and then into warrens of interconnected chambers, with the cows kept close by so the owners might benefit from the animals' body heat.

There is also some organic evidence:
Study of the farms' ancient insect fauna revealed the remains of flies. Brought inadvertently from Europe, the flies were dependent for their survival on the warm environment of the Norse houses and on the less than sanitary state of the interiors. Radiocarbon dating of their remains revealed that they died out suddenly when these conditions ceased to prevail around 1350, presumably when the structures were no longer inhabited. . . . An ice core drilled from the island's massive icecap between 1992 and 1993 shows a decided cooling off in the Western Settlement during the mid-fourteenth century.


By the way. I have found an interesting article that suggests Greenland's ice cap is far more stable than some of the more hysterical reports suggest.

And one last comment.

Am I a "global warming denier" (perhaps morally equivalent to a Holocaust denier)? No. I think the data shows there has been some kind of average global warming in the recent past. My questions, however, include these:
  • Is this warming trend unprecedented in global history? (Evidence demonstrates: Absolutely not. "[S]omewhere between 450,000 and 800,000 years ago, the world's largest island had a climate much like that of Northern New England, the researchers said. Butterflies fluttered over lush meadows interspersed with stands of pine, spruce, and alder. . . . Greenland really was green, before Ice Age glaciers enshrouded vast swaths of the Northern Hemisphere.")

  • Is the current warming catastrophic? (My sense: probably not. If the earth and its flora and fauna survived the heat of times past, it--and they, and we--ought, certainly, to be able to survive the heat of the future.)

  • Does it promise to be catastrophic "if we don't do anything"? (See above . . . and below.)

  • Can human beings really do anything to reverse the warming? (My sense: there is little that we can do to reverse the warming. What we can do is carefully observe the climate trends and make appropriate changes in land use as the trends take their courses.

    As "The Reckless Libertine" comments in response to the article I linked to above with the "hysterical" epithet:
    The sea levels ARE going to rise. This much is inevitable. You can argue all you like about the impact man is having, and I don't doubt that there is an impact, but even if we all went back to live in the trees the sea level would still rise.

    How do I know this? Simple - it's been steadily falling for most of the past 1500 years (at least). We are told how the melting of the Greenland icecap is a terrible certainty, and what horrors we have wrought by allowing this to happen - yet in 1424, the Chinese explorer Hang Wen circumnavigated the island. At that time, there was no icecap - it's grown up since then (indeed, the last ice age peaked, not ten thousand years ago, but at the beginning of the 18th century).

    You can travel all around Britain's coastline and find all manner of evidence of land that was once underwater. Harlech in Gwynedd has always seemed an ideal example to me; here is a castle which was finished in 1299, and had it's own dock and sewage outlet at the rear of the castle. Today, the castle stands some 4 or 5 miles from the sea.

    Obviously, the sea level was not going to keep dropping forever. In fact, we have further evidence of such rise and fall in the past in the migration - on foot - of peoples from Siberia to Alaska, or from Orkney to mainland Scotland.

    This is an inescapable process. Like it or not, the water levels are going to rise (albeit very slowly) no matter how you spend your money.
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