Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador is changing and some archeological sites are at risk of disappearing

Coastal erosion and thawing permafrost are putting millennia-old sites in danger.

Coastal erosion and thawing permafrost are putting millennia-old sites in danger

Red Bay, Labrador, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. It was home to a Basque whaling station in the 16th century, and some artifacts remain from that era. (www.newfoundlandandlabrador.com)

Thawing permafrost and eroding coastlines are putting valuable archeological sites in Northern Canada at risk, including in Labrador.

Jamie Brake, an archeologist for the Nunatsiavut government in Labrador, says they are still trying to figure out just how much of a problem they are facing.

While the full magnitude isn't known, it's clear that it's no small issue.

"It's potentially huge," Brake said.

A recent Toronto Star article focused on Red Bay in particular, showing a Basque site from the 16th century and how close it has come to being swallowed by the sea in the last decade.

Brake pointed to other sites in northern Labrador, including a Dorset Paleo-Eskimo site that features well-preserved frozen deposits, including carcasses of the animals they ate.

Archeologist Jamie Brake, pictured here from a 2014 story, works for the Nunatsiavut government. (CBC)

Brake visited the site in recent years with a team of his peers, and they were shocked at what they found.

"What we discovered while we were there is that the nature of the site had changed dramatically since the 1970s," he said.

It's not just eroding coastlines that threaten sites in the province, but also melting permafrost. Any organic material preserved in the frozen ground will thaw and rot away.

Brake said the threat to archeological sites has been documented for a long time, but it has only been tied to climate change in recent years.

Sites with value are often highest risk

Robert Way, an assistant professor at Queens University, is a Labradorian and an academic with a focus on environmental change in Northern Canada.

He said the changes in landscapes are not as a dramatic in his home province as they are in the Northwest Territories or northern Yukon, but it does pose a significant risk.

"Unfortunately, some of the environments we might expect to see more change in are some of the sites you'd expect to be of archeological interest," he said.

Sites near the ocean, like Red Bay, are at the highest risk. But other archeological sites in tundra areas are at risk of being destroyed by vegetation growing where it has never grown upright before.

In the higher latitudes of Labrador, that's happening rapidly, Way said.

According to Brake, Nunatsiavut is now in the beginning stages of figuring out a plan to save some of these sites.

Robert Way is a Labradorian and an assistant professor of physical geography at Queen's University. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Whether it's recovering artifacts left behind by Basque whalers in the 1500s, or pre-Inuit inhabitants from thousands of years ago, it's a huge undertaking.

"In between figuring out how big of a problem it is and how much time you have, there needs to be an effort to prioritize which sites you can save," Brake said. 

"It's very unlikely we're going to be able to save everything."

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With files from On the Go

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