Climate Change and the Deteriorating Archaeological and Environmental Archives of the Arctic

By Hollesen, Jorgen; Callanan, Martin et al. | Antiquity, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Climate Change and the Deteriorating Archaeological and Environmental Archives of the Arctic


Hollesen, Jorgen, Callanan, Martin, Dawson, Tom, Fenger-Nielsen, Rasmus, Friesen, T. Max, Jensen, Anne M., Markham, Adam, Martens, Vibeke V., Pitulko, Vladimir V., Rockman, Marcy, Antiquity


Introduction

The past decade has witnessed growing global concern about the accelerating impact of climate change on archaeological sites (Colette 2007; see online supplementary material (OSM) 1, references 1-4). An increasing number of ancient sites and structures around the world are now at risk of being lost. Once destroyed, these resources are gone forever, with irrevocable loss of human heritage and scientific data. Often defined as the territory north of the +10[degrees]C July isotherm, the Arctic (Figure 1) is a bellwether for current large-scale repercussions of climate change, and for the future changes predicted to occur around the world. The Arctic has warmed at a rate of more than twice the global average since the 1980s (Stocker et al. 2013). While some historical changes in climate result from natural causes and variations, the strength of current trends indicate clearly that human influences have become a dominant factor (ACIA 2004; Stocker et al. 2013). Due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the Earth's atmosphere, currently observed climatic trends are predicted to accelerate (ACIA 2004; Stocker et al. 2013).

Climate change will cause wide-ranging alteration to the Arctic, with some impacts already observable. Rising air temperatures, permafrost thaw, fluctuations in precipitation, melting glaciers and rising sea levels are just some of the changes affecting the natural system (ACIA 2004), and causing physical and chemical damage to archaeological sites and materials. The potential scale of this threat to archaeological sites has led to growing concern among polar archaeologists (Blankholm 2009; see OSM 1, references 1 & 5). The subject has, however, received limited attention within the wider research community, and little is known about how sites are being, and will be, affected. Here we present the first broad synthesis on the most significant climate change impacts on the Arctic, and describe how these changes are currently affecting archaeological sites. We also give examples of current management strategies and mitigation measures, including awareness-raising initiatives. Finally, we propose the next generation of research and response strategies, and suggest how to capitalise on existing successful connections among research communities and between researchers and the public. Focusing on Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, northern Norway (including Svalbard) and northern Russia (Figure 1), we also draw parallels with archaeological sites from outside the region.

Arctic archaeological potential

The Arctic's cold and wet conditions have led to the extraordinary long-term preservation of archaeological material, including both artefacts and environmental evidence. The lack of modern development has also left many sites relatively undisturbed. Researchers therefore have unique opportunities to learn about past environments and cultures, many of which connect directly to modern indigenous cultures. Arctic archaeological sites often provide concrete connections to cultural heritage that language and other intangible aspects of culture cannot. Furthermore, they provide an ideal medium through which to engage younger generations with local heritage and culture (Lyons 2016). Spectacular finds and surviving structures have provided many novel contributions to the understanding of our common cultural history (Figure 2). Recent methodological advances are providing new results (e.g. Lee et al. 2018; see OSM 1, references 6-8). The archaeological deposits also contain a diverse range of animal, plant and insect remains, and anthropogenic soils and sediments that enable us to move beyond the human-mediated aspects of the environmental system to address questions within other research fields (Pitulko & Nikolskiy 2012; see OSM 1, references 9-15). Causey et al. (2005), for example, used avifauna from multiple archaeological sites in the Aleutian Islands to model the impact of climate change on regional ecosystems. …

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