Rapid Warming is Creating a Crisis for Arctic Archaeology

June 29, 2018 | 10:47 am
An old whaling site on Svalbard, Norway. Photo: Adam Markham
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

There are at least 180,000 archaeological sites in the Arctic. Many are already being lost to climate change – virtually all of them are vulnerable. A new study by an international group of archaeologists and experts (including from the National Park Service and UCS) and published in Antiquity Journal, provides the first synthesis of climate threats to the Arctic region’s unique archaeological record. The cold and wet conditions in the Arctic have resulted in extraordinary preservation of organic materials such as bone, fabrics, animal skins and wooden tools for hundreds or thousands of years. But the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the changing conditions are proving disastrous for many archaeological sites.

Working in Greenland, Jørgen Holleson (lead author of the new study and an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark) has demonstrated at Qajaa in West Greenland that warming soil temperatures and changes in soil moisture are accelerating microbial decay of organic archaeological materials. Also according to Holleson, at some Thule Culture grave sites in southern Greenland, where organic remains including mummies, kayaks and hunting implements were present as late as the 1970s, recent field work has revealed that little or no organic material still remains.

Coastal erosion is washing away our heritage

Perhaps the most urgent issue in Arctic archaeology is that of coastal erosion. Permafrost thaw, changes in the freeze/thaw cycle and wave action during storms are combining to accelerate erosion processes. The loss of seasonal sea ice which protects the coastline from winter storms in some parts of the Arctic is also a major factor.

On Alaska’s North Slope, co-author Anne Jensen is engaged in a major rescue effort at Walakpa to study and document the archaeology of land occupied by semi-sedentary Alaskan Natives for at least 4,000 years which is eroding alarmingly rapidly, taking with it structures, artifacts and graves. Severe erosion is also wiping out archaeological sites on the East Siberian Sea coast and in North Western Canada where the most important sites of the aboriginal inhabitants, the Inuvialuit are endangered. “We’re losing the history of large areas of Canada” study co-author, Max Friesen of the University of Toronto told the Globe and Mail. The site of Nuvugaq on the Mackenzie River delta, for example, where 17 large houses and a communal structure used by an Inuit bowhead hunting group group known as the Nuvugarmiut, which was first reported from the Franklin Expedition in 1826, has already been completely washed away due to thawing permafrost and storms.

A 2016 photo of the remains of a large Inuvialuit house on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula on Canada’s Beaufort Sea coast, which has since been completely washed away. Photo: Max Friesen

Loss of sea ice, tundra fires and uncontrolled development

Also directly threatening archaeological sites in the Arctic are worsening tundra fires and the spread of shrubby vegetation as temperatures warm. Additionally, loss of sea ice in the Arctic is opening the region to more shipping traffic, military activity and industrial and urban development. It is also enabling increased tourism, including on larger cruise ships. The potential for uncontrolled tourism development causing damage to archaeology in a warming Arctic is very real. Tour companies will likely seek new landing areas for small boats carrying more visitors into fragile areas in the high Arctic, and in parts of the region there is expected to be increased pressure from tourists walking on sites, camping and using motorized vehicles.

Treasure hunting and looting of archaeological sites is also becoming a more serious problem with warming. Co-author Vladimir Pitulko of the Russian Academy of Sciences has documented “mining” of mammoth ivory at important “kill sites” in Siberia, where poachers use high pressure pumps to extract ivory from the thawing ground to sell on the black market. The increased numbers of tourists in the Arctic means that more people are able to casually pick up and keep (often illegally) artifacts they find eroded from coastal sites or melting ice patches and glaciers. And increased storm damage and erosion means that more artifacts are emerging.

A rapid assessment is needed to prioritize actions

In the face of unprecedented changes to the Arctic environment, the study authors argue that there is an urgent need to rapidly assess the vulnerability of key Arctic archaeological sites and develop strategies for prioritizing the use of scarce resources most effectively. With every storm, important archaeological remains are being washed into the ocean, whilst throughout the region organic materials are being rapidly lost to decay in warming soils after being preserved for centuries. Undoubtedly the assessment that there are 180,000 archaeological sites in the Arctic is an underestimate, and many important sites are likely to be lost or damaged before they have even been recorded. The impact of climate change on Arctic archaeology represents a catastrophe for world heritage, and one that requires urgent mitigation and adaptation action to respond to the scale of the crisis.