Northwestern professor Yarrow Axford knows why the Vikings left Greenland
Yarrow Axford, 45, is an associate professor and climate scientist in the department of earth and planetary science at Northwestern University. She focuses on understanding fluctuations in Arctic and alpine environments. Last year she published a study on the long-standing mystery of the Vikings’ disappearance from Greenland in 1450. She and her husband live in Evanston and have a son.
Why did the Vikings leave Greenland?
We studied lake mud near one of the old settlements and discovered that when the Vikings first landed, Greenland was relatively warm. But temperatures dived around the time the settlements collapsed.
So it was climate?
That’s one factor. But life was probably getting difficult for other reasons, too. Because of disease and social upheaval in Europe, essential trade may have been interrupted, for example.
What inspired you to study climate?
I grew up in rural Maine, where I spent a lot of time outside, observing the environment and learning to be comfortable outdoors in all types of weather.
When we’re in the field, we can go weeks without showering. We use baby wipes and frigid lake water to clean up. Food and clothing are not fancy, just there to keep us alive. I love living that way, though I do have higher standards at the office.
A scary moment in the field?
One night in Alaska with a research team, I was outside my tent getting ready for bed when I heard a strange clattering of rocks. A caribou was charging straight toward me, being chased by a huge grizzly. We all waved our arms and yelled and scared the caribou, and the bear followed it into a lake. I hardly slept that night.
Tell us about your name.
I was born in the ’70s to two idealistic hippies. They named me Yarrow after a wildflower that was believed to have some mystical and healing properties.
What scares you?
Global warming. There is no debate among legitimate climate scientists that humans are causing climate change. The evidence is damning, and it is going to make inequality worse, which scares me the most.
Is there hope?
Absolutely. We have many options, like alternate sources of energy, reducing wasted energy, improving public transit. The scale is daunting, but humans are capable of amazing things.
An embarrassing career moment?
The first time I was preparing a group of students for a field study, I spent two months emphasizing the importance of good gear. When we arrived in Greenland, my own aged hiking boots disintegrated, and I had to encase them in duct tape to hold them together.
My feet have never been the same after a summer of walking around that bouldery landscape. I always have to wear sensible shoes now. But I keep one of those treacherous boots in my office for sentimental value.
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