UMass Amherst Research Traces Past Climate, Human Migration in the Faroe Islands

Recovering peat cores from a site in the Faroe Islands. At left is UMass Amherst alumnus Nicolas Balascio, now assistant professor at William and Mary College, with UMass Amherst geoscience PhD student Greg de Wet.
Recovering peat cores from a site in the Faroe Islands. At left is UMass Amherst alumnus Nicolas Balascio, now assistant professor at William and Mary College, with UMass Amherst geoscience PhD student Greg de Wet.
Preparing to recover a sediment core from Lake Grothusvatn in the Faroe Islands.
Preparing to recover a sediment core from Lake Grothusvatn in the Faroe Islands.
A coastal village in the Faroe Islands.
A coastal village in the Faroe Islands.

AMHERST, Mass. – Raymond Bradley, Distinguished Professor in Geosciences and director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with others, recently received a two-year, $241,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to use new molecular techniques to reconstruct the past history of environmental changes in the Faroe Islands, a key location for people migrating across the North Atlantic over the past 1,000 years.

The Faroes, an archipelago of 18 volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway in the North Atlantic Ocean, represent an important stepping stone in the westward migration of people into Iceland, Greenland and North America, Bradley says.

Bradley’s research, to be conducted with co-investigators at Columbia University and the College of William and Mary, will focus on lake sediments that provide a record of natural and human-induced environmental changes over time. It will provide new information about when settlers first arrived in the Faroes, the animals that accompanied them, the settlers’ use of fire to modify the vegetation and how these events relate to past climate variations.

Bradley explains, “Recent archaeological research has found intriguing evidence that the first settlers on the Faroe islands arrived before the ninth century Norse settlers, but little is known about their impact on the environment, and what animals they might have brought with them. Our research will contribute to studies of how humans adapt to environmental changes in marginal island environments by examining the timing and history of environmental impacts, and the development of strategies that have allowed limited natural resources to be used sustainably for more than a thousand years.”

Specifically, the researchers will extract organic molecules preserved in lake sediments to obtain records that indicate the presence of human settlers. They will look at compounds and DNA produced and shed by human intestines, pigs and grazing animals such as sheep, goats and cattle. They will also look for molecules related to the burning peat and shrubs, and for compounds that can indicate changes in local vegetation. They will date sediments using radiocarbon and volcanic ash from past Icelandic eruptions for which dates are known.

The project will involve archaeologists from the Faroe Islands and the City University of New York who will advise on educational materials to be displayed in the islands’ National Museum. It will also offer opportunities for undergraduates to participate in the research and related public outreach activities.