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A Tale of Viking Exploration

Norse ruins from Brattahlid, Greenland
In no other country of the world are there as many people named after the weather and thunder god Thor as in Iceland - and with good reason. Firstly, weather is central to living in Iceland, as Iceland is a crucial element in the great climate machine of the northern Atlantic and the world. Here heat is pumped in from the south and storms are made and sent to the shores of northwestern Europe. But secondly, and more to the point, Thor (whose name we recognize in "Thursday") is the most powerful of the gods of the ancient Norse people, great seafarers of the 10th century who settled Iceland after arriving in their Viking ships. Their language, the oldest of the roots of Saxon English, is still spoken there today, with modest modification. These Vikings experienced “Thor’s power” first hand, when they attempted to make settlements in Greenland.Only a century or so after settling Iceland, the Vikings settled eastern Greenland at Brattahlid (near present-day Nanortalik), and later the western portion (near the present-day Godthab), when a belligerent man named Eirik killed two men in a quarrel.

Map of Greenland.
Known as “Eirik the Red,” he was exiled from Iceland for three years for his crimes, and in 980 A.D. he set sail and spotted an icy wasteland with pockets of green, habitable land rich in wildlife. In 982 A.D. he returned to this land with his family and livestock and lived there for the remainder of his exile. Returning to Iceland in 986, he convinced others to settle there with him, in part by somewhat misleadingly naming the settlement “Greenland”. Habitation of Greenland at the time was possible because the climate of the early Middle Ages was unusually warm. By 1000 A.D., Greenland was inhabited by an estimated 1,000 Scandinavians. This original settlement was later celebrated in Icelandic saga, and other Scandinavians arrived in Greenland. The settlement only lasted until about 1480 A.D., when the onset of nasty winters brought the inhabitants to death by starvation. This sudden climatic cold spell, known as the “Little Ice Age,” is an example of the power that climate change can have on human society.

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