Decline of the Vikings in Iceland

The Vikings in Iceland did not escape the negative impact of a rapidly cooling climate either. Although not completely wiped out like the Greenlanders, Icelandic Vikings were hit hard by the climate change. Olafur Einarsson (1573 - 1659), a pastor in eastern Iceland, wrote the following poem (Bryson, 1977) which illustrates the troubles Icelanders faced:

Formerly the earth produced all sorts
of fruit, plants and roots.
But now almost nothing grows....

Then the floods, the lakes and the blue waves
Brought abundant fish.
But now hardly one can be seen.
The misery increases more.
The same applies to other goods....

Frost and cold torment people
The good years are rare.
If everything should be put in a verse
Only a few take care of the miserables....

Lamb (1995) reports that the population of Iceland fell from about 77,500, as indicated by tax records in 1095, to around 72,000 in 1311. By 1703 it was down to 50,000, and after some severe years of ice and volcanic eruptions in the 1780's it was only 38,000. Average height declined from 5'8" during the tenth century to 5'6" in the eighteenth century. Lamb (1995) attributes much of the decline in population to the colder climate and increased ice flow. The harvest years were so cold that there was little hay to feed the livestock so thousands of sheep died. During the MWP, Icelanders grew grain over much of the island but by the early 1200's only barley, a short-season grain, was being grown. Lamb (1995) notes that there was also an increase in glacier growth and subsequent flooding from bursts due to volcanic activity under the ice. By the 1500's conditions were so bad that all attempts at grain growing were abandoned and Icelanders turned solely to the sea for their survival. The shellfish near the shores were destroyed by increasing amounts of ice so cod fishing became the Icelanders main source of food and trade. As the cooler waters moved southward, the cod were forced farther southward until they were too far offshore for the primitive Icelandic ships to reach.

As the warmer climate brought the Vikings in increasing numbers to Greenland and Iceland, the cooler climate was equal to the task of decreasing those numbers. By the time Columbus set sail in 1492, Greenland was "dead" and Iceland was struggling to survive its failing crops, starvation, and a collapsing fishing industry.

Scott A. Mandia
Professor - Physical Sciences
T-202 Smithtown Sciences Bldg.
533 College Rd.
Selden, NY 11784
(631) 451-4104