The Great Arctic Thaw: Cause for Concern?

After our class lecture about the Franklin Expedition, I got started thinking about how the harsh climate of the Arctic works incredibly well to preserve artifacts over time. This connected surprising well with a recent topic covered in my glacial geology/climate change course: The Great Arctic Thaw. The combination of this material led me to question myself, asking ‘what effect will glacial thaw have on future archaeological discovery?’. So, looking to quell my curious apatite, I did a little research…

In 2012, Discovery News posted an article about ancient weaponry that had been found as a result of melting glacial ice in Canada’s Arctic mountains. The discovery of these artifacts, high up in the Mackenzie Mountains, revealed valuable insight into hunting strategies and how these tools were made and used thousands of years ago. Amongst the weapons discovered were spears, snares, and bows and arrows.

Until recent years, the region was covered with frozen snow year-round. These tools were previously hidden deep within the winter snows, as more accumulated each year and further buried it. However, as global climates have been warming, the uppermost portion of frozen soil that melts – known as the ‘active layer’ – has been extending deeper as the permafrost thaws. As a result, these organic artifacts are rotting and decomposing in the acidic soil around them.

Studying the design of the weaponry provides insight into how hunting strategies and ancient technology developed in the area. Since 1997, archaeologists have uncovered over 200 ancient hunting artifacts in the patches of thawing ice in the southern Yukon region. Additionally, 1,600 animal bones and mummified remains of small mammals and birds have been found, still in pristine condition, having been well preserved over time.

Furthermore, radiocarbon dating of dung found at the ice patches has determined that caribou have inhabited the area for roughly 6,000 years. Studies of the insects and pollen that were trapped in the fecal matter help scientists to understand how the environment has changed over time. This can be further interpreted through studying plant remains to infer changes in the caribou diet, along with DNA preserved in the dung to address questions regarding genetic variability within the species.

It has been speculated that within the next century, most glacial archaeological sites will be damaged from permafrost thawing, sea level rise, and other impacts of climate change. The overarching implication of this unique problem connects with alpine research on a global scale and archaeologists must be quick to excavate and gather as much information about these sites as they possibly can.

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One thought on “The Great Arctic Thaw: Cause for Concern?

  1. The dilemma of the arctic thaw is an interesting one. The thaw has advantages as well as disadvantages. It may make it easier to discover sites and artifacts that had previously been covered in many feet of ice and snow. On the other hand, it may speed up the decomposition of those sites, which could decrease the chances of archaeologists finding them and obtaining useful information from them. Overall, the arctic thaw strikes me as having negative implications for archaeology. The ice and snow may make it more difficult to locate and access archaeological sites, but it does help to preserve artifacts very well for long periods of time. This allows scholars to excavate material culture that is in excellent condition, which helps provide them with the best information possible. While the thaw may expose previously unknown sites, it puts archaeologists in a race against the clock to find and excavate sites before the material culture becomes too degraded to be valuable.

    Thinking about the arctic thaw and how it will affect archaeology in the region makes me wonder what implications climate change will have on archaeology in other parts of the world. Will rising sea levels threaten sites near coastlines? Are there other regions where valuable material culture is encased in ice and snow that could melt due to rising temperatures? Will changing conditions such as temperature, humidity, and precipitation levels affect the preservation of artifacts or the rate at which sites degrade over time? It appears that climate change is going to have a significant impact on many parts of our lives, archaeology included. As we will be required to do with things like agriculture, archaeologists will have to adjust to deal with the challenges presented by climate change.

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