Have we been here before? Climate change, and the contrasting fates of human settlements in the Atlantic islands

Andrew J. Dugmore, Christian Keller, Thomas H. McGovern

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


A recurring theme in studies of our past is the extent to which climate fluctuations may influence
society, modify human interactions with the environment, trigger famines, drive changes in settlement
and prompt migration. The North Atlantic Islands of the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland permit the
analysis of human colonization, adaptation and long-term settlement undertaken by similar groups of
people (Viking Age settlers from NW Europe) in contrasting island environments across significant and
changeable climatic gradients. A pan-Atlantic view of the last 1,100 years can consider key aspects of
peoples’ experiences of, and responses to, different environmental and cultural challenges and,
ultimately, their very differing experiences of success and failure. These issues become most
pronounced in Greenland, with its successful Inuit and ultimately unsuccessful Norse settlement. The
precise reasons for the final extinction of the Norse in Greenland are uncertain. Amongst many
different explanations there is the possibility that in the 15th Century ‘it got cold and they died’; such a
brutally deterministic explanation can be refined to present a convincing case that an inability to adapt
and adopt fundamentally different lifestyles in the face of climate change may have made inevitable a
fate that could have been avoided. Perhaps the Norse Greenlanders chose not to live like the Inuit, and
so they died. On the other hand perhaps extinction was all to do with trade; fundamental changes to
the economic systems that first brought the Norse to Greenland could have made inevitable a
marginalisation of the colonies that effectively sealed their fate. The possible role of climate change in
this classic story of extinction provides a poignant historical underpinning to considerations of human
security in the face of present and future global change. Delving deeper into the ways in which climate
fluctuations maybe translated into various impacts, and reasons why impact may occur even in the
presence of apparently effective management mechanisms, we explore the notion of unpredictable
change in relation to differing cultural and environmental 'memories'. In Iceland, many different
experiences of success and failure, of impact and sustainability, can be explored in relation to rich,
well constrained data sets of both environmental and cultural information. Over the last 1,100 years
the Icelanders have experienced a wide range of different climate changes, their responses to these
challenges and the consequences of their choices offer some instructive perspectives on contemporary
global change. To what extent have we been here before, and will we cope any better in the future?
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2005
Externally publishedYes
EventHuman security and climate change: An international workshop - Holmen Fjord Hotel, Asker, near Oslo, Norway
Duration: 21 Jun 200523 Jun 2005


WorkshopHuman security and climate change
CityAsker, near Oslo


  • climate change
  • Atlantic islands


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