Curious scientists


“Vikings’ mysterious abandonment of Greenland was not due to climate change” read the headline of a recent Washington Post story, detailing new evidence that the Norsemen’s departure from the ice-capped island in the 1300s was not spurred by rapidly cooling conditions, as many scientists had thought. New high-tech rock-dating technology has convinced researchers that glaciers were already advanced in Greenland when the Vikings flourished there. Now, it’s believed that socioeconomic factors — perhaps disputes with the Native Inuit over the waning walrus and polar bear trade — caused them to pack up and leave.

There goes another tidy theory about the past. But future scientists, probing with new tools, will likely come up with yet more compelling explanations. For, as Hillary Rosner writes in this issue’s cover story, “Humans are a storytelling species. In science, those stories must be based on evidence. But even when they are, we often get it wrong.”

Publisher Paul Larmer

Rosner’s profile of the adventurous paleontologists seeking to unravel the mystery of a 200-million-year-old marine boneyard in Nevada resurrects more than one wild-sounding theory. A husband-and-wife team, pondering the neat rows of ichthyosaur skeletons, postulated several years ago that an enormous squid killed the “superdolphins” and then carefully arranged their carcasses on the sea floor. Armed with 3-D laser technology, the new team hopes to come up with a more plausible theory, including the possibility that ocean currents brought the bones into an orderly assemblage. But no one is suggesting that this is the last word.

This same humble spirit of inquiry into the past might help leaven the political fever over the science surrounding the great, ongoing mystery of our time — climate change. The models projecting the conditions we will encounter in coming years are increasingly sophisticated and data-rich, but they are still human constructs that inevitably will change as new tools, information, and yes, creative storytelling, are thrown into the equation.

What will be the tipping point beyond which the Greenland ice cap melts and rapidly rising seas overwhelm coastal areas? Will it be an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, or will 1 degree do the trick? Will some as-yet-unknown factor offset the effects of concentrated greenhouse gases, or will something else make it much worse?

I don’t know, but one thing is for sure: Unlike the mysteries of the past, we all have front-row seats at this drama.

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