Viking sagas read through the lens of climate change

March 09, 2005

Ancient Icelandic sagas may be full of treachery, death and destruction, but the real villain behind all the foment could well have been climate change. According to a Canadian scientist, there's a direct link between changes in regional temperatures and the thematic content of the sagas.

The research is based on newly reconstructed temperature records gained from ocean sediment cores collected off the coast of Vestfirdir, the northwest peninsula of Iceland by scientists from the University of Colorado. Analysis of mollusc shells within these cores has provided an astounding, almost weekly, record of temperature changes in the region.

"The difficult social periods in the sagas and other histories correspond to periods when cooler winters were coupled with what were some of the coldest summers of the last 2,000 years," says Dr. William Patterson, an associate professor of geology at the University of Saskatchewan who is leading the research linking seasonal climate change and Norse sagas.

The new temperature record was gleaned from microscopically thin layers cut from the mollusc's growth rings, each layer representing a few days in the animal's submarine life. The layers were powdered and the oxygen and carbon isotope values measured to create a record of environmental stresses, that were primarily due to temperature, on the Icelanders.

The results of the research, funded by NSERC and the U.S. National Science Foundation, show that in Iceland during what's known as the Little Ice Age from about 1350 A.D. to 1850 A.D., there was an increase in what is termed "seasonality," with cooler winters, colder summers and increased temperature variability. On the other hand, temperatures were highest at 80 B.C., 850 A.D. (during Viking settlement), and during the 1740s.

These changes had a profound impact on early Icelanders, and they continue to have an impact today. A one-degree drop in average summer temperatures can result in a 15-per cent drop in crop yields.

"The sensitivity of these people living in this marginal environment is readily apparent when you reconstruct the temperature variation," says Dr. Patterson. "Prior to this research we could speculate that temperature was a cause, but now we can say there's a good correlation between summer temperatures and the social situation."

Dr. Patterson says the Norse sagas provide numerous points for climatological analysis and comparison. One of the early sagas (Egils saga Skallagrímssonar) provides clues to the climate of Norway and Iceland from 850 to 1000 A.D. Other sagas such as Edda depict the Ragnarok, a pagan tale of the twilight of the ancient gods, that starts with the fimbulvinter (mighty winter) in which much is destroyed during a period of many years without summer, heroes and even families turn against and kill each other, and the world is ruined. Though Edda was written in the 1200s by Snorri Sturluson, it is thought to represent a previous cold period in northern Europe about 2,800 years ago. Other less stylized records from the Middle Ages and later are easier to interpret in terms of the climate-society connection, says Dr. Patterson.

The findings are part of a larger research project that will document changes in North Atlantic temperatures over the past 16,000 years. This type of information is critical for the validation of existing climate change models.

Contact: Dr. William (Bill) Patterson (306) 966-5691 (office); (306) 717 7177 (cell phone); or

Dr. Patterson's research results will be presented as part of the 35th Annual International Arctic Workshop at the University of Alberta on Thursday, March 10, at 2:00 p.m. Quantitative reconstructions of near-shore environments over the last 2000 years in Vestfirdir, NW Iceland: evidence from high-resolution stable isotope analyses of molluscs will be presented by Kristin Dietrich, the M.Sc. student doing the micromilling analysis.

Get an overview of all the research being presented at the conference and schedule at!=public=11097957385686=1=27357566 (Note: Select abstracts from the top of the page to view the abstracts.)


More than a hundred leading Arctic researchers from Canada, the United States and Europe will gather in Edmonton this week for one of North America's major northern research conferences.

The 35th Annual International Arctic Workshop is hosted by Dr. John England, the NSERC Northern Chair at the University of Alberta, the Canadian Circumpolar Institute (CCI), and the University of Alberta's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

From its origins as an informal annual meeting at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Arctic Workshop has grown into an international meeting hosted by academic institutions worldwide.

"Canada has sovereignty over the largest area of tundra in the world, and has expansive northern marine coastlines and waters," says Dr. England. "So we are a major northern nation and the international community is interested in the scientific questions associated with that environment as well as the economic potential that it offers with its resources and potential transportation routes."

Wednesday, March 9, 5:00 p.m. to Saturday, March 12, 6:00 p.m.
Timms Centre for the Arts
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta

Conference press release and tip sheets:

Contact: Dr. John England (Cell phone during conference only) (780) 717-7495.
Office number (780) 492-5673 or

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

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