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Vol 40  No 5
November 1, 2007


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Climate change and Dorset people
by Leslie Vryenhoek

Denise Brushett, a graduate student in the Department of Geography. (Photo by John Boserup)

A Memorial University master’s student was one of several researchers who recently set sail in search of marine sediment that will help answer whether climate change contributed to the disappearance of the Dorset Paleoeskimo people from the island of Newfoundland.

Denise Brushett, a graduate student in the Department of Geography, played a key role in September when the Akademik Ioffe sailed eastern Newfoundland bays to gather seafloor samples covering the past 2,000 years.

The research project is known as NORCLIM (Northern High Latitude Climate Variability During the Past 2,000 Years: Implications for Human Settlement), an International Polar Year project that brings together climate researchers and archaeologists. The past two millennia have seen several warming and cooling periods in the Arctic, which is particularly sensitive to climatic change. Co-ordinated by Simon Troelstra of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, NORCLIM’s aim is to examine how rapid climate change affected past human settlements.

According to NORCLIM’s Canadian counterparts, Drs. Priscilla Renouf and Trevor Bell of Memorial, the researchers hadn’t intended to come this far south; rather, they were focusing research in Baffin Bay/Labrador Sea, the Icelandic region and the Spitsbergen area.

“Once they realized the significance of Newfoundland as an area with high-resolution archaeological record, they included it,” said Dr. Renouf, Canada Research Chair of North Atlantic Archaeology.

That record includes the existence here of the Dorset Paleoeskimo people, who built substantial settlements with seasonal dwellings as big as a small modern bungalows; the most remarkable on the island has been found at what is now Port au Choix. However, the Dorset people suddenly disappeared from the island, and eventually from Greenland and Labrador as well, and cannot be traced to modern times.

Newfoundland was also home to Amerindian people who eventually became the Beothuks. She noted the Paleoeskimos ate primarily harp seals, and lived “cheek by jowl” with Amerindians – ancestors of the Beothuks – who had a diversified, terrestrial diet.

“There was a turning point about 1,200 years ago on the west coast, during a period of increased warmth,” Dr. Renouf explained. “The Paleoeskimos disappeared, and the Amerindians thrived. We think climate change is one big factor in that.”

Seafloor sediment may hold the proof of this change, already known to have happened on the west coast of the island but unproven across the whole of Newfoundland.

Enter a Russian ship called the Akademik Ioffe and its cargo of scientists from eight countries, including chief scientist Dr. Marit-Solveig Seidenkrantz from Aarhus University, Denmark, as well as graduate and undergraduate students and one Canadian: Ms. Brushett.

The team took core samples from Bonavista and Trinity Bays, guided by information from one of Ms. Brushett’s supervisors, Dr. John Shaw from the Canadian Geological Survey. However, it was Ms. Brushett who had the necessary expertise for Placentia Bay, where she’d focused her master’s studies.

“They let me plan the survey for Placentia, which was very exciting,” she said, adding that acoustic data is used to assess the seafloor and bottom sediments. “You only get one chance to core in an area, so you need to know where to go.”

The research scientists and students worked four hour shifts, during which they collected the core, then sliced and packaged centimetre-thick segments.

“You had to get dirty,” she laughed. Fortunately, the ship offers adventure cruises when not carrying scientists, so there was a chance to clean up with a swim and a sauna – when she could tear herself away from the work.

“Even when you weren’t on shift, it was hard to tear yourself away because no one wanted to miss anything.”

According to Dr. Bell, professor of geography and Ms. Brushett’s supervisor at Memorial, each sample could contain rich data.

“We’re looking for microfossils that lived in the water column,” he explained. “The species and their abundance tell us a great deal about the marine conditions – everything from temperature to salinity to productivity to the amount of sea ice that may have been around.”

Most significantly, the results will refine the temporal scale, which he said currently only provides a broad millennial scale. “This research will allow us to reconstruct the marine conditions on a century – or even sub-century – scale.” That opens possibilities for understanding how climate changes could have had an immediate impact on people living on the coast.

“The question we wonder about is ‘was it here in Newfoundland that the Dorset experienced the initial tipping point?’”

Dr. Renouf believes it’s possible, because the other factor in the rapid emigration from the region is believed to be the complex communication systems the Paleoeskimos employed; if the harp seals failed to arrive at Newfoundland, and the Dorset people left, the disruption in a key communication hub would have had a wide-ranging impact.

Dr. Renouf calls the IPY “a mosaic of projects and a mosaic of funding.” Her part in NORCLIM draws on an existing SSHRC grant, while Dr. Bell’s comes from his NSERC grant.

“One of its legacies will be the international research networks that have been created,” she said. “Another will be demonstrating the important human dimension of scientific climate study projects.”


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