National Geographic : 2010 Jun
• as much oil as the North Sea's elds. Warmer temperatures would also mean a longer grow- ing season for Greenland's 50 or so farms and perhaps reduce the country's utter reliance on imported food. At times these days it feels as if the whole country is holding its breath---waiting to see whether the "greening of Greenland," so regularly announced in the international press, is actually going to happen. ' of hype hap- pened a millennium ago when Erik the Red arrived from Iceland with a small party of Norse- men, aka Vikings. Erik was on the lam (from the Old Norse word lemja) for killing a man who had refused to return some borrowed bedsteads. In 982 he landed along a ord near Qaqortoq, and then, despite the bedsteads incident, he returned to Iceland to spread word about the country he had found, which, according to the Saga of Erik the Red, "he called Greenland, as he said people would be attracted there if it had a favorable name." Erik's bald-faced marketing worked. Some 4,000 Norse eventually settled in Greenland. e Vikings, notwithstanding their reputation for ferocity, were essentially farmers who did a bit of pillaging, plundering, and New World discovering on the side. Along the sheltered ords of southern and western Greenland, they raised sheep and some cattle, which is what farmers in Greenland do today along the very same ords. ey built churches and hundreds of farms; they traded sealskins and walrus ivory for timber and iron from Europe. Erik's son Leif set out from a farm about 35 miles northeast of Qaqortoq and discovered North America sometime around 1000. In Greenland the Norse settlements held on for more than four centuries. en, abruptly, they vanished. e demise of those tough, seafaring farmers o ers an unsettling example of the threats cli- mate change poses to even the most resourceful cultures. e Vikings settled Greenland during a period of exceptional warmth, the same warm period that saw expanded agriculture and the construction of great cathedrals in Europe. By 1300, though, Greenland became much colder, and living there became ever more challenging. e Inuit, who had arrived from northern Can- ada in the meantime, pushing south along the west coast of Greenland as the Vikings pushed north, fared much better. (Modern Greenland- ers are mostly descended from them and from Danish missionaries and colonists who arrived in the 18th century.) The Inuit brought with them dogsleds, kayaks, and other essential tools for hunting and fishing in the Arctic. Some researchers have argued that the Norse settlers failed because they remained fatally attached to their old Scandinavian ways, relying heavily on imported farm animals instead of exploiting local resources. But more recent archaeological evidence sug- gests the Norse too were well adapted to their new home. omas McGovern, an anthropolo- gist at Hunter College in Manhattan, says the Norse organized annual communal hunts for harbor seals, especially once the climate cooled and domestic livestock began to die. Unfortu- nately, harbor seals also succumbed. "Adult har- bor seals can survive cold summers, but their pups can't," says McGovern. e Norse may have been forced to extend their hunts farther o - shore in search of other seal species, in waters that were becoming more stormy. "We now think the Norse had a very re ned social system that required lots of community labor, but there was a major vulnerability---they had to have most of their adults out there try- ing to get the seals," says McGovern. "A trigger for the end of the Norse in Greenland could have been catastrophic loss of life from one bad storm." e Inuit would have been less vulnerable because they tended to hunt in small groups. "It's a much more complicated story than we It feels as if Greenland is holding its breath---waiting to see if the "greening" will actually happen.