Vikings could navigate, colonize the Arctic during Medieval times

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The possibility that global warming might contribute to Arctic development isn’t anything new. America’s first European visitors, the Vikings, were able to reach and colonize the northernmost reaches of the continent due to the lack of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean during Medieval times when the earth was going through a warming period.

The Viking era came well before the Industrial Revolution — when humans began burning large amounts of fossil fuels which some scientists say causes global warming — and suggests that there are strong natural climate forces that have a profound effect on the extent of Arctic sea ice coverage. However, this is not a new theory — it was discussed as far back as the 19th century.

According to an 1887 newspaper article entitled “Variations in Climate,” Scandinavian Vikings were able to sail through the Arctic Ocean and establish colonies in the “highest north latitude” of Greenland and North America centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. These colonies, however, were abandoned by the Vikings due to “the increasing cold.”

“On the contrary, the formation of ice increases annually if the winters are strongly cold, long and dark,” wrote Alexander Beck in 1887. “The reverse of that state of things is found by calculations for the year 1122 A.D., and it is precisely at that time we find the Danes and other Scandinavian nations going through the Arctic open seas.”

“Colonies are established by them in the highest north latitude of Greenland, and the upper part of North America, a long time before Christopher Columbus had reached a more southern part of the same continent,” Beck added. “But those colonies were relinquished on account of the increasing cold. In the fourteenth century the seas are found again closed, even in the summer. The great north icefield … increases daily, the Arctic colonists are compelled to come more to the south, and the cold takes possession again of countries which were kept free for a few years just about the twelfth century.”

“Remains of those upper Arctic villages are found, I may say, in each Arctic expedition. The climate of Iceland becoming more and more cool also proves that the state of the earth varies in the course of centuries,” Beck continued.

The warm climate that defined the Middle Ages and allowed the Vikings to settle the most northern reaches of the Americas is known as the “Medieval Warming Period,” which lasted from the 9th century A.D. to the 13th Century A.D. During this time temperatures were warmer in the Northern Hemisphere than the so-called “Little Ice Age” that followed, according to the National Climate Data Center.

The “Little Ice Age” that followed the warmer Medieval period lasted from the 14th century A.D. to the late 19th Century A.D. Some scientists argue that this period coincided with low sunspot activity which cooled the climate substantially during this time period. Others say that it had to due with natural climate variations caused by the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently, German scientists have argued that two naturally occurring cycles will combine to lower global temperatures to levels corresponding with the “Little Ice Age” of 1870. According to scientists declining solar activity and the 65-year Atlantic and Pacific Ocean oscillation cycle will cause the earth to cool during this century.

“Due to the de Vries cycle, the global temperature will drop until 2100 to a value corresponding to the ‘little ice age’ of 1870,” write German scientists Horst-Joachim Luedecke and Carl-Otto Weiss of the European Institute for Climate and Energy.

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