Impacts of Norse settlement on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in Southwest Iceland

N. Richter, James M. Russell, J. Garfinkel, Y. Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Norse colonization of North Atlantic islands in the 1st millennium of the Common Era led to drastic prehistoric environmental changes in these previously “pristine” landscapes. In Iceland, Norse settlement is associated with a rapid decline in birch trees and heightened soil erosion, yet the timing of Norse exploration in the North Atlantic coincided with large climate changes that also influenced Icelandic environments. To date, there are few records that disentangle climatic and human impacts on terrestrial ecosystems, and there has been very little work on the impacts of Norse arrival on Iceland’s aquatic ecosystems. Here we use a high-resolution lake-sediment record from Vestra Gíslholtsvatn (VGHV), southwest Iceland to investigate these processes during the last 2,000 years. Norse arrival (c. 870 CE) in Iceland is followed by a rapid increase in sedimentation rate and a transition in leaf wax n-alkanes indicating a decrease in trees and expansion of grasses. This transition coincides with limnological changes, including increased primary productivity (i.e. C17n-alkane and biogenic opal fluxes) and shifts in the haptophyte algal community. Many of these changes are still apparent today. Comparisons with a new winter-spring alkenone temperature reconstruction from VGHV and marine sea surface temperature records show little to no correlation between terrestrial and aquatic ecological changes and climate at this time. Similarly, volcanic eruptions recorded in VGHV are not associated with any long-term environmental changes. Rather, the VGHV record suggests that human settlement had a lasting impact on the catchment area of VGHV and changes within the lake ecosystem. © 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V. part of Springer Nature.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)255-269
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Export Date: 23 January 2021


  • Alkenone
  • Common Era
  • n-alkane
  • Paleoecology
  • Paleolimnology

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • ICE4

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