Long-range weather forecasts these days leave me running hot and cold.
Frozen Greenland is warming up and dumping its ice into the Atlantic Ocean, which is rising. Are we doomed, lungs full of carbon dioxide, panting our last as we tread water? On the other hand, are advancing monstrous glaciers about to chase us all into Florida and Cuba?
Let’s take a little longer view, using the findings of paleoclimatology, an obscure field of study which tracks the marks weather has made during earth’s history. Paleoclimatology draws on the talents of: archaeology, climatology, history, anthropology, biochemistry, biology, botany and geography, to name a few. You hear very little about this discipline, because few journalists understand it and even fewer can spell it. Lazy writers would prefer to adopt the war cry of Global Warming, and attribute GWs depredations to civilization’s exhaust fumes.
Using the long view, glaciers began retreating from the northern hemisphere about 18,000 years ago. Since that time, with a myriad of local ups and downs, the earth has been getting warmer. At present we live in one of the most even and temperate climates ever.
One of those myriad ups and downs I mentioned was observed in the year 982 A.D. when Eric the Red and his Viking buddies sailed the North Atlantic to land in Greenland. The place was really green then, more verdant than it ever was before or after. Temperatures averaged four degrees higher than they do today. There was pasturage for sheep and cattle, and even a few trees.
More real estate developer than Viking, Eric named it “Greenland” in hopes of attracting settlers. It was soon populated with a number of Norse who lived in comfort from their flocks and herds, and who even developed a brisk trade with Norway in sealskins, furs, and walrus ivory.
It was too good to last, and it didn’t. Norse sagas record the coming of colder weather. From 1200 A.D. on they increasingly mention drift ice as a navigational hazard in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Trade with Iceland and Norway fell off, with the last recorded voyage to Greenland in 1410. During this grim period permafrost began rising toward the surface of farms. This was proved by a 1921 excavation of a Norse graveyard, which found earlier graves were of normal depth, but later ones were increasingly shallow as the permafrost crept up.
There are no accounts of life in the dying colony of Greenland during this period, but later documents from Iceland at the turn of the 18th century give an idea of what it was like. The farm at Bredamork is described as a “derelict, a little woodland, now surrounded by glacier.” As late as 1698 “there was some grass visible…but the glacier has since covered all except the hillock on which the farm house stood, and that is surrounded by ice so that it is of no use even for sheep.”
Iceland survived, but Greenland’s settlements shrank and eventually died out. In 1540 a Dutch whaler landed and discovered only “a dead man lying face down on the ground….clothed in frieze cloth and sealskin,” his sheath knife “much worn and eaten away.”
The Vikings died partially because they refused to adopt the lifestyle of the native Inuit tribes, who hung on and today are thriving because of the warmer temperatures. Small cities are even cropping up along the new ice-free coastline.
Climatologists suggest this same warming trend which turned Greenland lush also earlier sparked food production in Scandinavian lands with a consequent population boom. In the ninth and tenth centuries this population exploded outward in a burst of Viking explorers, marauders and traders who swept over Britain, Ireland and coastal Europe all the way to Constantinople. Another arm of this explosion portaged Russian rivers to Turkey. Their slaying, robbing, raping, burning, and business dealings kept Europe in turmoil for nearly two centuries.
At any rate, it’s nice to know Greenland is again shedding its ice cover and may once more rate as a vacation spot. Long-range weather forecasting is a tricky business, as people have discovered down through the ages. Focusing on isolated events is not a great deal different than trying to determine the correct decade by following the second hand on your watch. Ancient folk living in North Africa — a land of milk and honey in 7000 B.C. — would be astounded to see their home diggings four millennia later, a vast desert with civilization barely clinging to the shore line.
I remember well the “Little Ice Age” which hit America and Europe in 1940 and lasted right into 1993. The Birmingham area was covered repeatedly with heavy snowfalls and ice storms from the 1960s on. In 1947 I lived for a time in Memphis, Tenn., when a freezing rain left ice three-inches thick on streets, power poles, and trees. Comparatively, past mild Alabama winters more resembled those of Southern California. Adolf Hitler had the bad meteorological judgment to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, the coldest winter of the Little Ice Age. If he had launched his attack a few years earlier, we might now be speaking German with a Southern accent.
Weather follows its own rules, not our puny exhalations, but we will “weather it” and doubtless handle whatever it tosses our way.