Climate Lessons From A Lost Land

The story of the “Atlantis of the North Sea” is one about our impermanence and ultimate futility against the elements. But within it also lies a warning of our potential future in an age of climate change.

Jesse Stone for Noema Magazine

Tristan Søbye Rapp is co-founder of The Extinctions, a site that delves into the mass vanishing of species over the last 50,000 years.

Off the coast of western Brittany, legends tell of an island-city called Ys. They say it was rich and beautiful and given to luxury, a hub of commerce, where countless ships came and went. Yet the island was threatened. It lay low upon the sea and, often, storms or high tides would lap across its streets. Therefore, the king of Ys, Gradlon, built a great, protective dike to ring all the island, and he locked it with a key that only he possessed.

But Gradlon had a daughter — a wild and irresponsible youth named Dahut, who was given to drink and revelry. According to the oldest version of the tale, one night, she and her lover grew so blinded by wine that they decided to steal King Gradlon’s key and unlock the dikes of Ys. The seas rushed in through the open gates and, before the sun rose, swallowed up the island — with its towers and great halls — whole. Even to this day, it is said, the bells of Ys can sometimes be heard chiming beneath the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez.

The legend of Ys is not the only story of a lost land in the seas off the coast of Britain. The lost isle of Lyonesse, home in ballads to King Arthur’s knight Tristan, is told to have held 140 churches and many fair towns, and to have been taken by the sea, like Ys, in a single terrible night. In Wales, stories were told of Cantre’r Cantref Gwaelod, a drowned kingdom said to lie beneath what is now the Cardigan Bay.

It is perhaps not altogether strange that the ancient Celts told such stories, for when the tides draw away from many shores in Britain and nearby lands, a peculiar sight is revealed: tree stumps on the muddy flats, stretching in places far out into the sea, into depths hidden save at the lowest of tides. Their very existence betokens a mystery to which even medieval-era people were not insensible, and our earliest written records of these so-called “submerged forests” date to at least the 12th century.

The first of these comes from the Welsh-Norman priest Gerald of Wales, in his work Itinerarium Cambriae, where he said of them that “[they] looked, not like a shore, but like a grove cut down, perhaps, at the time of the Deluge, or not long after, but certainly in very remote ages, being by degrees consumed and swallowed up by the violence and encroachments of the sea.” This connection to the Biblical Flood would persist, and for centuries the mysterious drowned forests would be known in folklore as “Noah’s Woods,” testament, it was thought, to that ancient calamity.

Despite this knowledge and enduring curiosity, many long years would pass before a more academic eye was turned upon the subject. The ancient stumps were too natural for the archaeologist, too petrified for the botanist, too recent for the geologist and, at any rate, too inaccessible, out among the treacherous, muddy tide zones, for all parties to dare venture. It would not be until the dawn of the 20th century that one man, Clement Reid, a Victorian geologist nearing retirement, took a scientific approach to explaining the strange phenomena.

A picture of the ancient sunken forest at Borth Beach in Wales at low tide. The forest lay beneath the sand for thousands of years until a storm exposed them back in 2014. The trees are thought to have been submerged around 4,500 years ago and the local peat has preserved them. This forest has for years been associated with myths about a Welsh Atlantis, Cantre’r Gwaelod (“The Sunken Hundred”) written about in 13th century literature. Photo by Eveengland

The notion of Earth’s true antiquity, and its changing nature over time, was still a comparatively recent epiphany in Reid’s day, and he was among the first great paleontologists. Drawing together observations of one particular forest’s placement and distribution, he worked through a string of potential explanations, discounting them all, in turn, to conclude finally that “nothing but a change of sea level will account for its present position.” In a slim, 1913 publication, Reid proposed on this basis the existence of a lost land bridge, which had once bound together the continent and the isles. It would be the first time in nearly 8,000 years that anyone had grasped upon the truth of the North Sea and the world that lay forgotten beneath it.

The study of prehistory was still in its infancy when Reid submitted his thesis, and there were many uncertainties he could not firmly answer. He did not know the full loop extent of this ancient land bridge, nor the nature of its geography or ecology, nor even precisely when it had ultimately succumbed to the waves. Indeed, it would still take many decades before advances in methodology, combined with accumulating evidence, could enable us to grasp a fuller picture.

“The legend of Ys is not the only story of a lost land in the seas off the coast of Britain. The lost isle of Lyonesse, home in ballads to King Arthur’s knight Tristan, is told to have held 140 churches and many fair towns, and to have been taken by the sea, like Ys, in a single terrible night.”

With his limited means and incipient research, he suspected the country to have been an inhospitable landscape, boggy and miasmic, passed through solely by fleeting travelers as they migrated between more important uplands. His reliance on nearby archaeological artifacts for dating purposes was overly simplistic and led him astray, as he suspected the floods began with the first farmers and ended by the Bronze Age, around 3,000 years ago. Though Reid’s work remains fundamental, great leaps have been made in our knowledge since.

We now know that ocean-levels did not start rising about 5,000 years ago, as Reid thought, nor end as late as 1000 B.C. The beginning was far earlier, tied up in the ending of the Ice Age, circa 10,000 B.C., and had finished already by 7-8,000 years ago. We now also know that this flooded country was not merely a treacherous wasteland. It was a rich land, a fertile land, a world unto itself. And, in the last few decades, owing to magnitudes of sensory work done by oil-surveyors, wind-mill prospectors and construction firms charged with laying undersea pipes, we have at length begun the long, exciting process of mapping the very contours of the drowned landscape itself. Since the 1990s, we have even had a name for this country: Doggerland. A picture of its history, its advent, and its loss has at last begun to emerge, and with it a story — and a warning, too, for future generations about the changing tides of our planet and dangers we may face today.

According to our most comprehensive histories, this is how that story goes:

Doggerland Inhabited

Let us step back into the past and try to grasp the picture these discoveries have painted. The origins of Doggerland lie far, far back before the first bronze was smelted or the plow ever yoked to a horse or cow, before the long ice — before, even, a certain gangly, upright primate made its first stumbling probes beyond its ancient, savanna home. There is a sea over Europe; there is no Britain and no continent. It is hot, and the world is strange and old and full of life, at times familiar, yet odd.

Ages go by and, slowly, the waters retreat. The seas become islands, become a great, single landmass, connected in its eastern extremities to the greater land of Asia. Northward from its western shores extends a long peninsula, tethered to the continent by a vast upfold of the Earth’s crust — a wall of rock and chalk ridges. This is the Wealden Anticline, which runs from the hills of the South Downs in southern England to Artois in our time’s France. 

There is no France in this era, no England, but we are moving closer to their day. The hot skies are cooling and the snows growing longer and deeper at the planet’s poles. For the first time in many millions of years, since before the age of the dinosaurs, the world is entering an Ice Age. The cycles of the Earth’s orbit have decreed a period of long cooling — not one single event, as many think, but a vacillating dance of cold spells and reprieves, of thaws and freezes and thaws again, each lasting many thousands of years. Each new freeze gathers up glaciers and each new thaw melts and disperses them. 

A freeze is ending. It is the melting-time. Northeast of prehistoric, or “ur” Britain and ur-France, above the wall which connects them, stretches a wide, sandy plain. It is a shallow sea in the warm-spells, and naked land in the cold. It is the ur-Doggerland. As the masses of ice retreat from it, they leave in their wake great streams of meltwater — gathering confluence by confluence, into a vast ice-lake.

The lake has no outflow, no drainage; fed by the shrinking glaciers, it can only grow. Pressure builds. Finally, a day comes when it is too much. Breaking through the low hills that dammed it, the lake collapses over the low plain, surging south, where it crashes into the Wealden Anticline. The chalk and stone cannot withstand it and is broken and flushed away. For the first time since Europe rose from the hot, ancient seas, Britain is severed from the continent.

A shallow ocean now spreads between the islands and the mainland, the plain beneath only exposed when the seas are unusually low. Yet the seas do lower. The warm spell cannot last. Heat gives way to chill gives way to heat and, by 50,000 years ago, the planet is in the grips of its final cold epoch — the Ice Age of popular culture.

“The origins of Doggerland lie far, far back before the first bronze was smelted or the plow ever yoked to a horse or cow, before the long ice — before, even, a certain gangly, upright primate made its first stumbling probes beyond its ancient, savanna home.”

Once more, the glaciers have crept down from the north, drawing up the world’s oceans like great sponges. Doggerland stretches as a vast, arctic plain from the uplands of Britain to the hills of Denmark, from the river-valleys on the bed of the English Channel to cliffs of Orkney and Shetland. Nor is it alone, for seas are shrunken across the world.

In Southeast Asia, the continental shelf between Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago lies exposed, such that a tiger might walk from Cambodia to the tip of Indonesia’s Java, or a monkey could swing across the carpeting rainforest. Far in the north, between Siberia and Alaska, the Bering Strait is likewise dry, and a broad landmass, Beringia, opens easy crossings from one continent to the other. Even in Australia, the Arafura Sea, which today severs Top End from New Guinea, is gone, and in its place lies a vast savanna, grazed by rhinoceros-sized marsupials. Yet in Europe, in the bed of the North Sea, all is cold and barren.

Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash

Time ticks on, millennia pass by. It is 20,000 years ago and we are closer to the end of the long freeze than to its beginning. But not quite. Before it finally relents, it gathers all its strength and its chill for one great glacial pulse, thrusting down shoulders of ice deep into the south. From buried Scandinavia, the ice reaches as far as Germany; the permafrost runs beneath tundra into Austria and Hungary, meeting there the glaciers of the Alps.

It is colder than ever before, and colder than it ever will be again. It is the Maximum, the zenith of the world’s deep freeze. The plain of Doggerland barely reaches to the sea; east, west, over much of the north, it is walled by ice and an impassable chill. It is a hard land, an empty one.

But despite the cold, the frost and the featureless landscape, Doggerland is teeming with life. There are snow hares and lemmings and grouse and arctic foxes, and the megafauna — the great beasts. Vast herds drift across the plains, larger by far than any found today beyond the parks of Africa, grazing, browsing and fertilizing.

A late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain where giant mammals, like woolly mammoths, lived prior to their extinction. Photo by Mauricio Antón

Unlike the poor, often acidic soils of modern tundras — boggy and coated in unpalatable shrubs — the fields of Doggerland are rich and fertile. They are blanketed in green herbs and grasses, and flush with flowers in the short summer months. They are what we call the Mammoth Steppe, among the richest ecosystems ever known, now nearly lost to time. And Doggerland is the heart of the steppe in Europe. Where the herds go, predators follow: wolves, bears, lions, hyenas — and, now, humans. 

These are not the first Men in Europe. Some 50,000 year ago, their earliest antecessors had crossed the straits of the Bosporus, beginning their great migrations westwards through the continent. In the process, the character of Europe would change forever, and our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals, would first be displaced and in time, destroyed. Moving forward to 20,000 years ago, it is still nearly 10,000 years to the end of the Ice Age.

The vastness of time can be difficult to comprehend. Yet for all their antiquity, even at this ancient date, these early settlers, who traveled into the heart of the steppe in Europe, likely made little headway in Doggerland. Not all the rich game in the world will aid much in the glacial cold if no wood can be found to burn in the flat grasslands. For the time being, save perhaps probing, seasonal expeditions, the expanses of Doggerland remained a steppe too far.

Still, tribes cling to the southern outskirts of the great plains, biding their time, stalking any meandering herds which wander out. They are peoples of surprising sophistication — artisans, gatherers, hunters of the horse and reindeer. They sew garments pinned with bone-needles, make rich ornaments of cowry-shells, even build turf houses from the tusks and limbs of slaughtered mammoths. They are ingenious, adaptable. And their time in Doggerland will come.

Years pass, the sky warms. Things begin to change. About 15,000 years ago comes the Bølling–Allerød warming, when temperatures shoot up across the continent and forests of birch, aspen, willow and pine invade Doggerland. Briefly, the cold will swing back, circa 13,000 years ago, but the greater trend is set and the Ice Age running to its end. With the glaciers retreating, water flows back into the seas, fraying the northern shores of Doggerland and eating away at its outer reaches.

“The plain of Doggerland barely reaches to the sea; east, west, over much of the north, it is walled by ice and an impassable chill. It is a hard land, an empty one. But despite the cold, the frost and the featureless landscape, Doggerland is teeming with life.”

Just under 12,000 years ago, the Norwegian Trench breaks into the Kattegat, reconnecting the Baltic. The breadth of dry land linking Britain east to Jutland is diminished, yet what remains is a vast, green and now hospitable plain. For millennia, this land will become the center of human habitation in Western Europe.

With the end of the long cold, life on the continent sees many changes. The vast herds that trekked the mammoth steppe are gone or fading: destroyed, most likely, by the growing presence of Man. For the duration of the Ice Age, the wide, unpopulated expanses in the north were a refuge and a safety for the abundant populations of megafauna. No matter how many animals these hunters might kill in the south, there were always more to take their place, as stocks of game seemed to be continuously refilled by migrating animals from the glaciers’ distant fringes.

Now, however, matters have changed. Enterprising tribes — hunters, explorers, ancient adventurers — have populated the continent from east to west, and even to the fringes of the Arctic Sea. For the big game, there are no more safe havens, save the mountains and deep forests into which they increasingly retreat, their numbers dwindling in obscurity. 

In the absence of the old herds, the sustenance of countless generations, novel foods and livelihoods are needed. It is a new age, the Mesolithic, the last period of hunter-gathering in European history. People increasingly take to the shores and waterways and to the swiftly swelling wetlands, fed by the encroaching seas.

The warming climate has turned Doggerland into a river-country and a land of fens, or bogs — perhaps not the most inviting prospect to the modern eye, yet a bounty to the hunter and forager. No direct evidence of permanent human occupation survives from Mesolithic Doggerland, owing to the victory of the North Sea, yet it seems overwhelmingly probable. The land is ripe for settlement.

Reconstructed Mesolithic round-house Replica of a 10,000 year old round-house which was excavated from a nearby cliff-top site which had been discovered by the identification of flint artifacts in the eroding cliffs by amateur archaeologists. Photo by Andrew Curtis / Reconstructed Mesolithic round-house / CC BY-SA 2.0

To the marshes and reed-forests flock geese, mallards, cormorants and swans, whilst the shorelines brim with eiders, wigeons and flightless auks. There are oysters to be collected, crabs to be caught, and vast migrations of spawning fish — eel, salmon, shad, to name but a few — more abundant by far than anything seen in later years.

There are monsters in the waterways, enormous sturgeons, up to six meters long, and there are all the twigs, reeds and willow-branches one could ever need for basketry and wickerwork. In the forests, not all the hunted game is lost. Deer stalk the underbrush, wild boars as well. There are elk among the fens. Doggerland in the early Mesolithic is rich and plentiful — and it cannot last.

Far to the north, the last glaciers are still melting. The seas have not ceased rising. Beach by beach, headland by headland, the waves are gnawing at the coasts. Their forays are not altogether disastrous: where the waters inundate a field or forest, salt marshes and tidal flats are born — optimal hunting-grounds, overflowing in fish and wildfowl. Until, that is, these too, in turn, are swallowed by the sea. Slowly at first, increasingly quickly, those same processes that once gave life to Doggerland are beginning to destroy it.

It is now 9,000 years ago. Less. The landmass of Doggerland has shrunk dramatically: In the north, the shores are rapidly retreating, river-mouths sinking into estuaries into flooded bays and firths. In the south, the great delta where the Thames and Rhine once joined is swiftly eroding into a deepening inlet. Soon enough, these growing introgressions will connect off the hills of Jutland, linking the waters into a single, contiguous seaway, reducing Doggerland to an island.

The Earth’s climate is not steady, nor has it ever been. The pace of warming varies due, in this era, to the planet’s unsteady axial tilt, and with it, the rate of the rising seas. There are periods of slowing — even of temporary reversal. Enough, we may imagine, to feed fortunate generations the hope that the floodings may be drawing to their end. Any such reprieves are but brief and illusory.

The interior of a Mesolithic home. Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND 2.0) license by Hans Splinter

Doubtless, as in more recent ages, these floods are often disastrous and deadly. Countless lives on countless occasions are lost to the planet’s fickle seas. Yet evidence from nearby countries suggests folk do not simply abandon the shores. They cling to them and the wealth of food and resources they offer. We need not imagine these people as unduly primitive or itinerant — though our knowledge of the ancient denizens of Doggerland is severely limited, buried now beneath layers of sea and sediment, what clues we do have point to a substantial degree of sophistication, and even of some permanence.

“The Earth’s climate is not steady, nor has it ever been. The pace of warming varies due, in this era, to the planet’s unsteady axial tilt, and with it, the rate of the rising seas. There are periods of slowing — even of temporary reversal.”

By the estuaries, they build sizeable houses, inhabited by successive generations, whilst inland survives evidence of mysterious, wooden posts, perhaps the Doggerlandish equivalent of Amerindian totem poles. These point to a landscape not just ephemerally inhabited, but integrated, understood and sacralized, as witnessed among indigenous peoples around the world. The loss of a seasonal territory or hunting ground is not merely an economic, but a cultural, even spiritual bereavement. Graves of buried ancestors are swept away, sacred pools and springs drowned in the tides, as whole nations are unmoored and set adrift. 

We are at the end now, or near to it. Where once stretched the vast expanse of unbroken plains, linking Scandinavia to the continent and Britain north to Shetland, remains only a small, tattered archipelago. People still likely inhabit it, though we lack conclusive evidence. A boating-people, a fishing-people, paddling in dugout canoes between the low islands. These had been an upland of the greater landmass, called the Dogger Hills — today, it’s the eponymous Dogger Bank. They are the last remnant of the flooded country, and they, too, are on borrowed time. At the edge of Norway’s continental shelf, at a place called Storegga, a series of three enormous submarine landslides occur, among the largest ever recorded. They trigger a wave of tsunamis across the North Sea, bearing against the last remains of Doggerland, where waters sweep over the isles, killing, presumably, anyone still inhabiting them. This may not have been the very end — devastated, depopulated, a few pieces of land and scattered sandbars may have struggled above the waves for some further centuries. But by 7,000 years ago, all is gone. The entirety of Doggerland has been swallowed by the sea and, soon enough, by forgetfulness, save perhaps in murky legend.

Photo by Jason Kocheran on Unsplash

Doggerland Lost

Why does the story of Doggerland so captivate modern minds? From novels to documentaries to the flurry of recent research, the ancient, flooded landmass is — for the first time in over 7,000 years — approaching the status of a household name. Plato said of legendary Atlantis that “there fell one day and night of destruction; and the warriors in your land all in one body were swallowed up by the earth, and in like manner did the island Atlantis sink beneath the sea and vanish away.

His story of how the greatest and richest of human cities could suddenly be lost and destroyed captured people’s imaginations for more than 2,000 years. If Atlantis fascinates for its parable of Man’s hubris, then Doggerland is perhaps a story of our impermanence and our ultimate futility against the elements. Its relevance in an age of climate change and rising seas is evident, for within its story seems to lie a warning, and a picture, maybe, not merely of the past, but of the future.

The (pre)historical significance of the events is evident, even apart from their drama. The loss of Doggerland brought irreparable fractures in the human landscape of Europe as well. Earlier Stone Age cultures, such as the traditions known to archaeologists as the Ahrensburgian and Maglemosian, had been shared across a broad, northern world. From the flat plains of Poland fringing the Baltic Ice Lake to the English uplands and the vanished lands between, there had stretched one single, common, mingling cultural sphere, and the result was a unity both of ancestry and tradition.

When Doggerland sank, this sphere was broken. The cultures that arose in the following millennia, such as the Ertebølle in southern Scandinavia, would develop isolated from Britain. The newly formed sea was a barrier too great for Mesolithic boat-craft, and though the narrow English Channel remained navigable to canoes, connecting England southwards to the continent, it would not be until the coming of the Anglo-Saxons and then the Norse, many thousands of years later, that a particular link between Britain and the North Sea’s eastern shores was re-established.

Beyond merely an explanation for archaeological trajectories — a curious anecdote of the ancient past — it is clear that the drowning of Doggerland was something more. It was, in a very real sense, a human tragedy. One we have only now begun to grasp. We may imagine recurring scenes of exodus, of one group fleeing inland from the sinking coast, settling in the territory of another tribe, subsequently displaced. Unhomed, they, in turn, must migrate further into the interior, continuing the unfolding chain of violence and dispossession. This is the dark insinuation of Doggerland’s story that frightens us — a vision of migration, exile and shattered identities setting off the dominos of strife and conflict. It is the vision we fear for ourselves.

“The dark insinuation of Doggerland’s story that frightens us is a vision of migration, exile and shattered identities setting off the dominos of strife and conflict. It is the vision we fear for ourselves.”

The flooding that drowned Doggerland was the result of more than 100 meters of rising seas since the glacial maximum, about 20,000 years ago. Such a scenario is more extreme than anything we face by this century’s end by around two  orders of magnitude, yet even a fraction of this increase could bring catastrophe today. Island nations such as the Maldives — strung along a series of low atolls — are rarely more than a few meters above the surf, and for most of the Maldives’ meager land-area, less than one meter. Permanent inundation, under such conditions, is not merely a hypothetical worry, but an imminent concern, even under more conservative estimates of future sea-level rise.

An image of the Maldives from above. Photo by Ishan Seefromthesky on Unsplash

Even in mainland countries such as Bangladesh, the majority of its land mass is less than 10 meters above sea-level, whilst the majority of the population inhabits the rich and fertile Ganges Delta, which is even closer to the waves, in places only a meter away. Mangrove forests, where intact, may shoulder some of the swelling waters and storm surges, but only to a point. Major floods are already increasing in their frequency and severity and are only projected to worsen in the decades to come.

The drowning of Doggerland is not a one-to-one analogy for the dangers we face today, and it is unclear what precise lessons, if any, may be extracted. Its loss was, ultimately, a natural and inevitable product of Earth’s celestial cycles, and for all its relative rapidity, the work of many millennia. Yet in the picture painted, and the tragedy we glimpse therein, we seem to spy ominously a warning and a premonition. For the story of Doggerland — its drama and its draw — that may, in the end, be enough.