When John Darwent returned to a remote corner of northwestern Greenland in 2012 to search for the remains of a paleo-Inuit culture that had occupied the area millennia ago, he found the site dramatically changed from the previous visit in 2006. Several meters of the coast had disappeared, chewed away by storm waves that had assaulted the permafrost. A rare archaeological find would soon be swept out to Baffin Bay.
A year later—and about 1,500 miles away—erosion along shoreline bluffs of the Chukchi Sea at Walakpa, about 12 miles from Barrow, Alaska, revealed an ancient sod house on an archaeological site once considered mined of all of its secrets back in the late 1960s. Anne Jensen and a small team of archaeologists raced to the area to conduct an emergency excavation, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), before the structure fell away when the next big storm pounded Alaska’s North Slope.
These events are not isolated, insist archaeologists. Countless archaeological sites are under threat from climate change around the world.
In the Arctic, the pattern has become a familiar one. Sea ice—a buffer between the coastline and open seas—is retreating earlier and returning later each year. That leaves the shoreline vulnerable for longer periods of time to angry storm waves, which pummel permafrost weakened by warmer temperatures like a battering ram on the walls of a castle long under siege. Large blocks of sod then tumble into the ocean along with human artifacts, even whole structures, buried within the soil for centuries if not millennia.
“Every archaeological site in the Arctic is eroding, and we can’t stabilize all of them,” says Genevieve LeMoine, curator and registrar of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Maine.
LeMoine is principal investigator on a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, in collaboration with Darwent, to recover artifacts from the Late Dorset culture that are entombed at the historic Inughuit village site of Iita, located in Foulke Fjord, in northwestern Greenland. The team will head to the site in June. (RAPID grants are NSF research awards for which funds are set aside for projects with severe urgency, such as a proposal to study the aftershocks of an earthquake.)
“We’re starting to realize this is a broad and inevitable crisis, and we’re trying to figure out how to cope with this impending loss of lots and lots of archaeological data,” LeMoine adds.
The Dorset represent a distinct culture of the High Arctic that were broadly part of what scientists refer to as the Arctic Small Tool tradition. ASTt people, as the name implies, employed small tools made of flint or quartz—a useful technology for a highly mobile culture. Waves of these paleo-Inuit spread eastward from Alaska and Canada into Greenland as long as 4,500 years ago.
The Dorset people had ventured as far as northwest Greenland by 700 AD. Primarily hunters who preyed on seals through holes in the sea ice, the Dorset preceded another culture known as the Thule, whose own migration eastward from Alaska began around 1200 AD. Their move into Greenland occurred rapidly, according to Jensen, perhaps within one or two generations. The modern natives of Greenland are descended from the Thule, who had distinctive technologies that enabled them to hunt whales.
Iita, also known as Etah, was a crossroads for these paleo-Inuit migrations and cultures. Its location on the edge of the Northwater Polynya, an area of open water in sea ice, served as an ideal outpost to hunt marine mammals like walrus. A nearby bird colony of dovekies, or little auks, was also a valuable resource. In the past, Arctic fox and hare had also been plentiful in the area.
“It was a good base camp, and it had resources at different times of the year,” LeMoine notes.
How did the Dorset Culture use those resources? What were their lives like—and what led to their eventual demise? What interaction, if any, occurred between the Dorset and Thule people? The answers to a number of such questions may be awaiting discovery just below the surface at Iita.
“The potential importance of the site for looking at Late Dorset culture is very high because it is rare to find stratified sites in the high Arctic,” says Darwent, who was on the team of scientists in 2006 that first discovered signs of Dorset Culture at Iita on an expedition originally focused on Thule excavations.
In particular, Darwent, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, is referring to the layering of artifacts like layers in a cake, thanks to a trick of the local geography. He described the area in a brief project summary following a 2012 expedition funded by NSF:
Iita sits on an alluvial fan created by a fast running creek; however, prior to the creation of the fan, during the time when ice still ran down the fjord, a steep-sloped deposit of gravel was left along the wall of the fjord, known as a kame. This kame is now eroding because of its steep slope; sand, gravel, and cobbles from it now flow down onto the alluvial fan, creating the stratigraphy now present at the site. … First an open surface exists that develops vegetation … then this surface is buried, and then another surface with vegetation develops. And upon these surfaces people lived.
“What makes the deposits special at Iita is not only the Late Dorset material stratigraphically below the Thule occupations; there are three distinct layers of just Late Dorset materials,” Darwent explains during an email exchange in May. “In essence, we have three snapshots of different times within the Late Dorset use of the region.”
Elation at such a discovery has been tempered by the precarious conditions that threaten to plunge Iita into Foulke Fjord. As luck—bad in this case—would have it, the most complex and informative deposits are located close to that erosion face, according to Darwent.
“As for timing, I would imagine in the next decade the stratified deposits could be gone,” he says, adding that the whole site is very large and there are some areas that will not be affected. “This summer will give us a good opportunity to see if substantial loss has occurred over the last four years. I am actually apprehensive that a large erosion event could have occurred already.”
Going all out
A lead scientist at Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) near Barrow, Jensen used funds from her RAPID grant to collect and analyze samples from Walakpa. As late as 2013, the site at Walakpa appeared stable when the face of the bluff sloughed off, exposing a sod house, which has since been dated to as early as 500 AD. The Iñupiat people have inhabited the region for at least 3,500 years.
“There are a number of sites that are very important, and if we don’t get to them fairly soon, they will no longer contain all of this really cool data,” says Jensen during a phone interview from Alaska where she has worked for more than 20 years.
As late as 2013, the site at Walakpa appeared stable when the face of the bluff sloughed off, exposing a sod house, which has since been dated to as early as 500 AD. The Iñupiat people have inhabited the region for at least 3,500 years.
“It’s not just important because it has the cultural heritage of this area,” she adds. “It’s a place that’s been used consistently for a very long time.”
A storm over the 2014 Labor Day weekend took out as much as 11 meters of the coastline along a 100-meter front. More of the site was lost the following year in a different storm. Jensen is leading an all-volunteer effort later this summer to recover as many artifacts and material as possible before more of the coastline breaks away. She’s even donating airline miles to help defray travel costs for colleagues.
“We’ll probably have people staying at my house,” she says.
Reaching beyond archaeology
Jensen’s impassioned advocacy goes beyond archaeology. She says human occupation at many of these sites can provide the sorts of ecological and environmental insights that are often the dominion of ice cores, sediment cores, and tree rings.
For example, at Walakpa, people have brought fish, whales, and other prey to the same site for thousands of years. Tissue samples from those animals are preserved in the permafrost, like meat in a freezer, waiting to be extracted and analyzed.
“You have a frozen tissue archive with several thousand years of time depth,” she notes. “Museums don’t have that.”
Experts can look at DNA and tease out information about animal population dynamics, speciation, even how diets changed and the food web evolved in response to environmental upheavals. It’s even possible now to extract corticosteroids from bone samples to determine if an animal experienced stress during its lifetime, Jensen explains.
“You can date it all,” she says. “You can start to put your food web together and see how they changed over time.
“A lot of it is not just social science data,” she adds. “A whole lot of the data I’m talking about is not going to answer social science questions; it’s going to answer natural science questions.”
Racing against time
It’s difficult to race against time to save the world’s archaeological treasures if there’s not even a starting line: There is no comprehensive list of endangered sites or even a catalog of how many are under threat at this time.
“The scope of the problem is so big,” LeMoine notes.
Jensen says there is momentum in the scientific community to prioritize sites worldwide and create a vulnerability index, based on a variety of factors, from cultural value to preservation cost to the assessed level of endangerment. Pragmatism must be observed in some cases. “There’s nothing you can do to protect some of these things,” Jensen says.
In the meantime, Jensen is advocating for a campaign to collect as much data as possible from archaeological sites, even forgoing analysis in the short term. She says a similar program to collect ice cores from fast-disappearing glaciers in the mid-latitudes captured invaluable data in the form of ice cores before the ice melted away in many places.
“Something similar needs to happen with archaeological sites,” Jensen says. “If you do it in the normal science order, you will get far less data. In 50 years, we’ll get far less data than we would have if we had gotten the primary data and curated it properly.”
How much time is left is anyone’s guess. However, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than scientists have predicted.
Alaska just experienced its warmest February ever and second warmest winter ever in the modern record, according to NOAA. Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country. Average annual temperatures have increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit with winter temperatures increasing by 6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Arctic sea ice is at the tipping point, setting a record low maximum extent in 2016 for the second straight year, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., and NASA. Sea ice extent over the Arctic Ocean averaged 14.52 million square kilometers on March 24, beating last year’s record low of 14.54 million square kilometers over the 37-year satellite record.
The longer absence of sea ice is detrimental to the coastline, even in areas like Alaska’s North Slope where permafrost is still relatively stable, according to Vladimir E. Romanovsky, head of the Geophysical Institute Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which maintains a network of permafrost monitoring sites in North America and Russia with NSF funding.
That’s because wave energy has more space and time to build up intensity. “It’s going to accelerate the rate of coastal erosion,” he says. “Degradation of permafrost is mostly coastal erosion in the Barrow area.”
In far northern areas like Barrow in Alaska and Iita in Greenland, little of the permafrost is fully thawing, Romanovsky says. However, the permafrost is warming and the active layer, the upper part of the soil that thaws and freezes annually, is slowly deepening, he adds.
Under a “business as usual” climate model where human impacts from atmospheric carbon dioxide remain steady, temperatures in Alaska will climb by as much as 8 degrees Celsius by century’s end. “In this case, according to this scenario, permafrost will be thawing even on the North Slope of Alaska,” Romanovsky says.
Additionally, the high salinity content of some soils in Greenland and Alaska, particularly along the coast, means liquid may already exist in some areas. Where there is water, there is life – microorganisms decomposing organic material. The temperature in the permafrost doesn’t need to reach 0 degrees Celsius before frozen earth in saltier soils thaws, ruining Jensen’s ecological archive of frozen animal tissue as the microbes go to work.
“These things have transitioned from perfect organic preservation to bone mush – there’s nothing that you can recover,” she says. “It’s a very rapid transition. It’s not like we have a lot of time here.” —Peter Rejcek
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