Conservatism saved Iceland from catastrophe

Mar 22, 2012 By Tom Marshall
Conservatism saved Iceland from catastrophe

The people of medieval Iceland survived disaster by sticking with traditional practices, an innovative new study suggests.

This didn't just help them recover from plague and volcanic eruptions; it may ultimately have kept on Iceland viable centuries later when had made their environment even harsher.

The research examines how late-medieval Icelanders responded to potentially devastating population drops, by analysing layers of and volcanic ash.

"Icelandic society at the time was both very conservative and very resilient," says Dr. Richard Streeter, lead author of the paper, which appears in . "We hear a lot about how societies need to be flexible, but in this case it seems to have been reluctance to change that helped these people recover surprisingly quickly from plague and cope with climate change."

Iceland suffered two devastating at the beginning and end of the 15th century. The first is thought to have killed around half the population. The country was also hit by regular volcanic eruptions, which left large areas of unusable for years.

And since the mid-14th century, the European climate had started to get gradually colder, making the already-difficult Icelandic landscape even harder to farm. At the time Icelanders relied on for much of their food, in particular on cows and sheep, and the plagues' would have made it very hard for them to keep looking after their animals properly. It would have been easy for society to have sunk into despair and apathy. But that didn't happen.

The researchers looked at layers of soil and volcanic ash, or tephra. "Initially we were just interested in whether you could find signs of these disasters in the tephra record. We found you could, and wondered what this said about the society of the time and how it responded," Streeter explains.

In particular, changes in after the plagues would suggest changes in grazing patterns, which could themselves reflect trends in wider society. If the community had floundered because of psychological trauma and manpower shortages, herds of feral sheep might be left to roam the hills, stripping vegetation bare and causing widespread erosion in upland areas.

Or, even if such a farming collapse was avoided, it would have been tempting for Icelandic people to abandon labour-intensive cow herding and rely only on sheep. The soil records show that neither of these happened. After both plagues, Icelanders carried on farming as they had before - just on a smaller scale. They continued to keep both cows and sheep, and generally kept their flocks under control, so there was no discernible increase in soil erosion.

"Abandoning cows for sheep would certainly have been a possible response to the plague, but there's no evidence they did this," says Streeter. "If this had happened, we'd expect to see year-round sheep grazing creating very damaging erosion in upland areas." This is because it's hard to control where sheep graze without a lot of labor-intensive shepherding.

He adds that if Icelanders had permitted such destructive grazing, it might have meant their island couldn't support them centuries later. "Soil erosion eventually became a huge problem even as things were," he says. "And by the 18th century the climate got so bad that, combined with the after effects from the 1783 Laki eruption, there was talk of having to abandon Iceland. If there had been massive soil loss earlier on, this could have tipped them over the edge. Their ability to continue even through massive demographic change enhanced their resilience centuries later."

Iceland is the best place in the world for this kind of research. Its frequent mean there's a ready supply of volcanic ash to form new soil, meaning in many places ground levels rise by 0.5mm a year – very fast as soil goes.

This fast rate of deposition means changes in erosion caused by grazing are easy to spot. The eruptions also mean there's a thick layer of undisturbed ash every so often amid this soil; Iceland's accurate written histories mean we can date these layers with great precision. "We don't just know that there was a major eruption of Hekla in 1341," says Streeter. "We know it happened on the 19th of May, at 9am."

Iceland's resilience contrasts with the fate of the Greenland settlement. Like Iceland, that society had been founded by Norse settlers, so they had very similar cultures. Greenland faced even greater problems – climate change hit it much harder, and changes in European trade patterns reduced demand for walrus ivory, the colony's main export. Unlike Iceland, the colony didn't survive the challenges it faced.

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User comments : 16

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kaasinees
0.3 / 5 (30) Mar 22, 2012
The main reason they got plagued by diseases is because of eating grazing animals .. duh.
"Conservatism" will not let us survive, in fact we will get killed one way or another by any natural event.
What we need to do is create our own enclosed ecosystems and separate us from, this excludes eating mammals. This way we can develop our enclosed systems and one day separate ourselves from earth in order to survive.

Illogical paper.
Noumenon
2.3 / 5 (15) Mar 22, 2012
This way we can develop our enclosed systems and one day separate ourselves from earth in order to survive.


You've already separated yourselves from reality.
Noumenon
1.3 / 5 (12) Mar 22, 2012
What we need to do is create our own enclosed ecosystems [...] and one day separate ourselves from earth in order to survive.


Rolling up into a cowardly ass-ball, is the leftist solution to everything.

There's more dignity for humanity, to live as free individuals as nature intended, given our instincts. If we can't survive with personal liberty intact, then let us go down with the ship.
kaasinees
0.4 / 5 (27) Mar 22, 2012
This way we can develop our enclosed systems and one day separate ourselves from earth in order to survive.


You've already separated yourselves from reality.

How so? Sooner or later earth can no longer support life, just a matter of time. How are you going to survive that when you depend entirely on Earth ecosystem (which we are destroying slowly but surely).
How are you planing on surviving in space for a long time when we finally develop some decent space travelling engines?

We NEED to separate our ecosystem from earth so we can leave other life alone. We decrease our dependencies entirely, and everyone can have a hot meal. We still need energy sources such as heat and wind from the Earth though, for now.

If you think otherwise maybe you are the one who is separated from reality. The tech is here right now, we have aquaponics and many other system developments that enable us to do it.
ryggesogn2
1.6 / 5 (13) Mar 22, 2012
Sooner or later earth can no longer support life

Then we need to have the technology to move to other planets or create new habitats.
That won't be accomplished by a tribal society burning dung, which is what the AGWites/socialists want, wealth destruction.
kaasinees
0.6 / 5 (27) Mar 22, 2012
to live as free individuals as nature intended, given our instincts. If we can't survive with personal liberty intact, then let us go down with the ship

Are you serious? You are one of the most retarded people I have seen on this board.
Right now we DEPEND on earths ecosystem entirely, without it we are dead. How is that freedom for you retard?
When we create our own enclosed ecosystems we are free from earth.
We only need to find energy sources for our ecosystems which are abundant in our universe.
Then we need to have the technology to move to other planets or create new habitats.

How do you intend to move there when the travel takes thousands of years?

Its amazing how you people have no concept of the bigger pictures.
Noumenon
1.3 / 5 (12) Mar 22, 2012
Whether or not humans populate self sustainable space ships in the future, is for sci-fi writers, not policy makers in 2012.

Your self imposed fear is not mere decades away or even several tens of generations away, as the emotionally and politically driven AGW hysterical propaganda would leave a 11 year old naive peta member to believe, so relax.

Humans have lived on the planet for several million years. If the earth can no longer support life, then the earth can no longer support life.

Any "planning" based on 2012 technology is meaningless non-sense. With respect to technological progress in the modern age, one hundred years is a millennium, while such a period of time, wrt earth climate, is a mere blip of time.

We need to keep the oil based free-market economies moving full bore ahead, in order to prevent stagnation of technology and thus cause alternatives to be even less likely. The use of the cheapest energy source is an inescapable inevitability, that even you can see.
ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (12) Mar 22, 2012
Right now we DEPEND on earths ecosystem entirely,

How does socialist central planning conserve the ecosystem?
It has always failed to date.
Feldagast
2.4 / 5 (9) Mar 22, 2012
Right now we DEPEND on earths ecosystem entirely,

How does socialist central planning conserve the ecosystem?
It has always failed to date.

By killing off anyone that wont submit to their agenda, worked for Stalin and Hitler didn't it?
Callippo
1 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2012
Conservatism" will not let us survive, in fact we will get killed one way or another by any natural event.
Why you're so conservative regarding new theories and findings, like the AWT or cold fusion, after then? Your philosophy doesn't meet with praxis.
ryggesogn2
1.5 / 5 (8) Mar 22, 2012
Right now we DEPEND on earths ecosystem entirely,

How does socialist central planning conserve the ecosystem?
It has always failed to date.

By killing off anyone that wont submit to their agenda, worked for Stalin and Hitler didn't it?

For a while.
kochevnik
4.4 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2012
Not conservatism. I fail to see how the Torries or the pope declaring a king the right hand of god who serves god only, and not the people, could save Iceland. Conservation saved Iceland from catastrophe.
scidog
5 / 5 (5) Mar 23, 2012
a better choice of words in the title would reflect that traditional methods of farming saw them thru and not "conservatism"
ccr5Delta32
3.7 / 5 (6) Mar 23, 2012
a better choice of words in the title would reflect that traditional methods of farming saw them thru and not "conservatism"

Sometimes I feel Physorg enjoy trowing a piece of meet to the political dogpacks
Conservative : embrace traditional values and gun-hoe freemarket capitalism
What strange bedfellows
girlgeek
5 / 5 (4) Mar 23, 2012
The research is about an event in Iceland in the 15th century. If Icelanders had not eaten grazing animals, there would be no Icelanders alive today. The harsh environment made and makes it very difficult to grow any kind of crops. Anyhow, I find it hard to believe that conservatism had anything to do with people keeping both sheep and cows, seems more like common sense to me. If one has the opportunity to live on various food (sheep and cows meat as well as milk products) one would be more likely to survive.
Mahal_Kita
3 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2012
OMG!

Please! Please! Please! Bar this article from GOP voters in election years!

;-)