Continuity in the face of a slowly unfolding catastrophe: the persistence of Icelandic settlement despite large-scale soil erosion

Andrew Dugmore, Rowan Jackson, David Cooper, Anthony Newton, Árni Daníel Júlísson, Richard Thomas Streeter, Viðar Hreinsson, Stefani Crabtree, George Hambrecht, Megan Hicks, Tom McGovern

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Abstract

Soil erosion in Iceland since people first settled the island about 1,100 years ago has fundamentally changed some 15-30% of the island’s total surface area. This provides a unique case to evaluate the consequences of a slowly unfolding environmental catastrophe that has affected, and is continuing to affect a primary means of subsistence for a whole society. Buffered by the sufferings of regions of Iceland, individual farms and particular social groups, Icelandic society as a whole has endured through subsistence flexibility, social inequalities, and the ability to tap into larger provisioning and economic networks. This demonstrates how an adaptable people can confront challenges through social organisation and by diversifying their impacts ecosystems. In the medium term—multi-century timescales—this can be an effective, if costly, strategy, in terms of both the environment and society. Soil conservation is now a national priority, woodland is returning, and climate warming is opening up more potentials for Icelandic arable agriculture. However, the slow catastrophe of Icelandic soil erosion is still unfolding, with the perspective of the longue durée it is evident that decisions made in the Viking Age and medieval period still resonate, constraining future options for resilience and adaptive flexibility.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGoing forward by looking back
Subtitle of host publicationArchaeological perspectives on socio-ecological crisis, response, and collapse
EditorsFelix Riede, Payson Sheets
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherBerghahn
Chapter6
Pages162-199
ISBN (Electronic)9781789208658
ISBN (Print)9781789208641
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2020

Publication series

NameCatastrophes in context
Volume3

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