Plague and landscape resilience in premodern Iceland

Richard Thomas Streeter, Andrew Dugmore, Orri Vésteinsson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


In debates on societal collapse, Iceland occupies a position of precarious survival, defined by not becoming extinct, like Norse Greenland, but having endured, sometimes by the narrowest of margins. Classic decline narratives for late medieval to early modern Iceland stress compounding adversities, where climate, trade, political domination, unsustainable practices, and environ- mental degradation conspire with epidemics and volcanism to depress the Icelanders and turn the once-proud Vikings and Saga writers into one of Europe’s poorest nations. A mainstay of this narrative is the impact of incidental setbacks such as plague and volcanism, which are seen to have compounded and exacerbated underlying structural problems. This research shows that this view is not correct. We present a study of landscape change that uses 15 precisely dated tephra layers spanning the whole 1,200-y period of human settlement in Iceland. These tephras have provided 2,625 horizons of known age within 200 stratigraphic sections to form a high-resolution spatial and temporal record of change. This finding shows short-term (50 y) declines in geomorphological activity after two major plagues in A.D. 15th century, variations that probably mirrored variations in the population. In the longer term, the geomorphological impact of climate changes from the 14th century on is delayed, and landscapes (as well as Icelandic society) exhibit resilience over decade to century timescales. This finding is not a simple consequence of depopulation but a reflection of how Icelandic society responded with a scaling back of their economy, conservation of core functionality, and entrenchment of the established order.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3664-3669
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 6 Mar 2012


  • tephrochronology
  • soil erosion
  • Human impact


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