What did the Viking Discoverers of America Know of the North Atlantic Environment?
By Thomas Haine
Weather, Vol. 63:3 (2008)
Introduction: In discovering and colonising Iceland, Greenland, and Atlantic Canada, Norse explorers displayed remarkable resilience to the harsh North Atlantic environment 500 years before Columbus reached the New World. Given such widespread exploration of the subpolar North Atlantic ocean and such close exposure to the environment it is interesting to speculate about Norse knowledge of oceanography, meteorology, and climate. Is it possible that they posessed a relatively advanced knowledge of their environment, albeit without any basic understanding? This article addresses this question.
Leif Eriksson’s arrival in Newfoundland in 1000AD marked the culmination of Viking expansion west from Scandinavia that began two centuries before. The early eighth and ninth century voyages from the homeland fjords of southwest Norway left permanent Viking settlements in northern France and the British Isles. Settlers arrived in the Faeroe Islands around 825AD and reached Iceland by around 870AD; the oldest archaeological remains there lie immediately above the tephra from the large 871AD volcanic eruption of the Vatnaldur fissure in southern Iceland. These farmers established permanent settlements that survived to the modern era.
Colonial occupation of southwest Greenland began in 985AD when Erik “the Red” Thorvaldsson led an expedition of 25 ships from Iceland to the vast new territory he had optimistically named himself. The total population of the two primary Greenland settlements peaked at a few thousand, but eventually disappeared in the fifteenth century and European knowledge of their existence was lost for many decades.
Two important written accounts of oral history describe exploration further west to what the Norse called Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. These Icelandic sagas about Erik the Red, his family, and followers (principally Erik the Red’s Saga and Greenlander’s Saga) explain how Leif Eriksson, Erik the Red’s son, established a settlement in Vinland in 1000AD. Although the Norse only stayed a few years, unequivocal evidence for their presence in North America was discovered at present-day L’Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland) in 1961. The sagas provide unique insight into details of the Norse activities, the places they visited, and their contact with the indigenous Indians (the “skraelings”, with whom they skirmished). There are only occasional and indirect references to their environmental knowledge. The uncontroversial evidence is therefore meager, but there are hints that the Norse did indeed appreciate many facets of North Atlantic oceanography, meteorology and climate.