Fun Fact - Discovering Greenland

Erik Thorvaldsson, born in Norway in the year 950, is better known as Erik the Red, due to his red hair and beard. Erik's father, Þorvald, was accused of manslaughter, and was banished from Norway forever. Fortunately, Þorvald was a capable sailor. He headed west, which is about the only direction you can sail, and landed on Iceland. This is a fairly small island in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, suggesting precise maritime navigation. He soon established a home for himself and his family in Hornstrandir, in northwestern Iceland.

His son Erik, i.e. Erik the Red, prospered in Iceland as well, and soon possessed a farm of his own, complete with slaves. But Erik, the son of an outcast, became an outcast himself. In the year 982, at age 32, Erik was connected with several killings between him and his neighbors. Many slaves were murdered on both sides, though that was generally considered destruction of property, rather than murder. The details of who killed whom, and when, and why, were a bit murky, so Erik received the relatively light sentence of banishment for three years, recapitulating his father's earlier sentence in Norway.

If you are forced to leave an island, you either learn to swim or you set sail. Erik did the latter, and landed, perhaps unintentionally, on Greenland. He was not the first to reach this desolate island. Other Nordic sailors had stumbled upon Greenland during the 800's, including Gunnbjörn, who called the large island Gunnbjarnarsker, after himself. Subsequent Norsemen attempted to colonize Gunnbjarnarsker with disastrous results. This is not surprising, since Greenland is anything but Green. It has few resources, and the winters are brutal. In fact, most of Greenland is covered by ice the year round. This is the "Greenland ice sheet", a mile thick and 660,000 square miles in area, blanketing almost 80% of the surface of Greenland. Miles and miles of ice, as far as the eye can see, a truly inhospitable place. Yet this is where Erik found himself in 982.

A methodical man, he sailed around the coast until he found a location that looked promising, free of ice, and similar to the terrane of his home in Iceland. He established a base camp, and explored Greenland for the next three years. Erik was a survivalist to say the least, on a par with Bear Grylls. I would have died in the first week, probably the first three days if the weather was against me. But Erik survived, and explored the island on his own.

In 985, Erik returned to Iceland, having served his time. He then performed one of the greatest feats of salesmanship in recorded history. This is more than just spin, this is polishing the turd. He renamed the island Greenland, suggesting lush pastures and fertile farmlands. Then he convinced dozens of families to go to Greenland with him to establish a new colony. Granted, life in Iceland was no picnic. If you were struggling, well, perhaps you too might have been persuaded to take a chance elsewhere. In any case, Erik and a band of followers waited out the winter, and then traveled to Greenland in 25 ships to steak their claim. 11 ships turned back or were lost at sea, leaving a complement of 14 ships to start a new life.

Although Greenland is the largest island in the world, there were only two tiny regions on its southwest coast that didn't look like the surface of Mars. Taking advantage of these enclaves, Erik established two colonies, the Eastern and Western Settlements. Erik lived in the Eastern Settlement, and attained the title of Paramount Chieftain of Greenland. He died at the age of 53, due to an epidemic introduced by a wave of immigrants, but his colony prospered for several centuries, reaching a population of 5,000, until a series of events led to its decline and near collapse. These included the Little Ice Age that began circa 1300, conflicts with the Inuit over dwindling resources, pirate raids, and a cessation of support from Norway. The rise and fall of these Settlements, and many other colonies around the world, is ably described by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I recommend this book; in fact I recommend just about everything Jared Diamond ever wrote. His earlier work, Guns, Germs, and Steel, won the Pulitzer Prize.

With the help of modern technology, the slice of Greenland that is arable now supports a population of 56,000. In June of 2009, the citizens of Greenland voted for autonomy, and became, in almost every respect, an independent country. However, they are still subject to the Kingdom of Denmark in matters of foreign affairs, defense, and monitary policy. Greenland is still, technically, a Danish territory. If present trends continue, Greenland could become independent in all respects in a couple decades.

If global warming continues, as it almost certainly will, Greenland's ice sheet will melt, raising sea levels by 24 feet and inundating coastal cities around the world. The good news: in just a few centuries, Greenland will actually be green. Erik will chuckle from his grave and say, "Told you so."

Further Reading

Erik the Red settles the south coast of Greenland
Greenland ice sheet