Vikings in Greenland: climate and land use impacts

$10,000
Raised
100%
Funded on 10/14/13
Successfully Funded
  • $10,000
    pledged
  • 100%
    funded
  • Funded
    on 10/14/13

About This Project

We know that Vikings settled and lived in Greenland sometime during the Middle Ages, but many questions remain regarding what climate was like and how the Vikings actually lived during this period. By coring lakes near the settlements and analyzing biomarkers within the sediments, this project will attempt to reconstruct both the paleoclimate and paleo-environment in this region. Knowing what the climate was, and how it changed through time, will give us clues about how the Vikings were able to farm and graze livestock, as well as what changed that led to these settlements demise.

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What is the context of this research?

Viking settlers went to Greenland sometime during the Middle Ages. There are various theories about why they went there, but the most controversial is that they took advantage of climatic conditions in the North Atlantic that were much warmer than today. If that was the case, it begs the question—why was it so much warmer? It could not have been due to fossil fuel consumption, so some have suggested that solar activity may have been stronger at that time. We propose to try and answer the question by collecting lake sediment cores from near the Viking settlements in southern Greenland, then applying new analytical techniques to the sediments, to reconstruct what the temperatures were actually like in Medieval time. This will complement research we are already doing on the other side of the Atlantic, in Svalbard and in northern Norway, so we should be able to obtain a broad regional picture of Medieval temperatures in those areas that the Vikings explored. We will look at specific organic molecules in the sediments (biomarkers) that can tell us about past temperatures, and also what kinds of impacts the Vikings had on the landscape itself during the period of colonization, such as soil erosion and water pollution due to agriculture and animal grazing.

What is the significance of this project?

We know that temperatures have risen a lot in the last 150 years, but before that, the picture is more uncertain. There were no instruments to measure temperatures in Medieval time, so we have to rely on other “proxies” of past climate—natural phenomena that in some way recorded how temperatures changed. Often tree rings are used to do this, but there are no trees in the Arctic, so the next best thing is to use lake sediments that have accumulated in close proximity to the Viking settlements. New techniques have been developed over the last few years that give us ways to extract a temperature record from the organic compounds in lake sediments. And new instruments give us the capability of sampling the sediments in great detail, so we should be able to build up a detailed picture of how the environment changed in southern Greenland from the present day right back into Medieval time. Fortunately, we have these new instruments in our research lab, and we are refining the new techniques to reconstruct past changes in the environment. This will help to answer questions about how different the climate was when the Vikings arrived in southern Greenland, and how much the climate changed after they settled there, leading to their eventual demise. These questions are also very relevant to today, as we ponder whether a further rise in temperatures in Greenland will lead to recession of the Greenland Ice Sheet and a rise in sea-level around the globe.

What are the goals of the project?

60% of the funds would be used for 2-3 people to travel to Southern Greenland to collect sediment cores and transport them back to UMass (Amherst), where I am working on my Ph.D (specializing in Arctic sediment analysis). The remaining funds would be used to pay for radiocarbon dates, and for biomarker sample analysis. Because we are able to run samples in-house at relatively low cost, the analyses will be carried out at high-resolution, producing a detailed record of past climate and landscape changes associated with the Vikings in Southern Greenland!

Budget

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The funding for this project would be used for travel and fieldwork to go to Southern Greenland and collect sediment cores from lakes near to the former Viking settlements. Here at UMass we already have all of the necessary coring equipment, and the high tech instruments needed to carry out the analyses. Both myself and my advisor have done fieldwork in Greenland and Svalbard (in the Norwegian High Arctic) before, so we are familiar with the logistical requirements needed to recover the cores. The remaining funds will be used to pay for the cost of running the samples taken from the sediment cores in the biogeochemistry lab at UMass. Since the samples will all be analyzed in-house by yours truly, we will be able to keep costs low and produce an extremely detailed record.

Meet the Team

Greg de Wet
Greg de Wet
Lead Researcher, PhD student

Affiliates

M.Sc., Geology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (2011-2013)

B.Sc., Honors, Geology, Bates College (2007-2011)
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Thomas Barrasso
Thomas Barrasso
Research Assistant

Affiliates

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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Team Bio

Hello everyone, I am a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the Geosciences department. I have always loved how Geology has allowed me to get outside with a purpose, and in light of anthropogenic climate change, that purpose is becoming increasingly important. As a paleoclimatologist, it is my job to understand what climate was like before we had weather instruments that could take direct measurements. Knowing what climate was doing in the past is the only way we can contextualize what we are seeing today and accurately predict what the future might bring. I really love my research and am very excited about combining paleoclimate analysis with a much more tangible human element (and who doesn't love Vikings??) for this project.

Greg de Wet

Hello everyone, I am a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the Geosciences department. I have always loved how Geology has allowed me to get outside with a purpose, and in light of anthropogenic climate change, that purpose is becoming increasingly important. As a paleoclimatologist, it is my job to understand what climate was like before we had weather instruments that could take direct measurements. Knowing what climate was doing in the past is the only way we can contextualize what we are seeing today and accurately predict what the future might bring. I really love my research and am very excited about combining paleoclimate analysis with a much more tangible human element (and who doesn’t love Vikings??) for this project.


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