The Arctic is melting — putting thousands of archeological sites at risk

Arctic archaeologists are racing against time to save the sites from looters and from being destroyed by natural forces.
Erosion on the shores of the Ninglick River as seen in 2015 in Newtok, Alaska. The village in Newtok is being forced to relocate due to warming temperatures which is causing the melting of permafrost, widening of rivers and the erosion of the coastline. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Listen8:19

This week, heat records have been set all over the world and the Arctic is not immune. Sea ice there has been melting at record rates, and climate change now means that the permafrost is not so permanent.

Sometimes, when we look at the problem, it just seems so overwhelming because we know there are literally hundreds of thousands of sites, and we can't even find them all let alone dig them all.- Max Friesen

A new crisis has emerged in the midst of these changes: the destruction of valuable archeological sites that were locked away in the permafrost for thousands of years. For archeologists, it's a race against time to save the sites from looters and from being destroyed by natural forces, as an estimated 180,000 Arctic archeological sites are now under threat.

Climate change's impact on Arctic archaeological sites

"There's actually a number of intersecting processes that are all happening at the same time and kind of making each other worse," says Max Friesen, an Arctic archeologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

The worst one, sea level rise, is particularly devastating because summer storms cause waves to pound away at the coastlines, which damages the wealth of archaeological sites along the Arctic coasts.

Other changes such as thawing permafrost harms the frozen sites underground by exposing them to microbes that break them down once the top layer of the permafrost melts.

And finally, the loss of sea ice means there's a longer open water period every summer, which leads to more storms and further erosion of the coast.

"When all three of these things work together, you're getting this massive loss of archaeological sites."

What's at stake

Friesen says we will lose the Arctic's history once the sites are gone.

"The Arctic is full of amazing sites and there's still so much we don't know about the Arctic. The history of the Inuit and their ancestors that live there goes back about 5,000 years and includes various types of sites."

Examples of some of the extraordinary archaeological finds from the Arctic (from the research paper)

He points to an example of a large site in the Mackenzie Delta region in Northwest Territories that was central to a group of Inuvialuit in the 1800s. When English explorers visited the area in 1826, there were 17 driftwood houses there, but today, there's nothing there.

Beyond history, the Arctic also offers a treasure trove of data in the forms of preserved animal bones and plant materials for scientists to recreate population histories in the past.

Saving the sites

"Sometimes, when we look at the problem, it just seems so overwhelming because we know there are literally hundreds of thousands of sites, and we can't even find them all let alone dig them all," admits Friesen.

To save the sites, Friesen believes archaeologists need more funding and more helping hands. He hopes to see a central program being set up to fund and organize the excavations so they could prioritize and rescue the most-threatened sites first.