Archaeologists create digital blueprints of historic sites on Yukon's Herschel Island

Archaeologists are using drones and laser technology to create digital replicas of historic sites on Herschel Island, a 116 square kilometre island off the Yukon coast in the Beaufort Sea.

Laser and drone technology used to create 3D replicas of sites threatened by erosion and storm surges

A 3D model of a blubber house constructed by the Pacific Steam Whaling Co. in the early 1890s. (Submitted by Peter Dawson)

The impacts of climate change can be hard to notice on an incremental basis, but when archaeologists Peter Dawson stepped off a Twin Otter aircraft onto Yukon's Herschel Island after a decades-long absence, there was nothing subtle about what he saw. 

"I think they've lost in some areas ... 20 metres of coastline over the last 20 years."

Dawson said seeing the erosion and other changes drove home the importance of creating digital blueprints of the historic sites at Pauline Cove, part of Herschel Island - Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park.

The buildings on Herschel Island, in the Beaufort Sea, are little protected against storm surges and coastal erosion. (Submitted by Yukon Government)

Digital backups

Dawson was first gripped by the history of Herschel Island, located in the Beaufort Sea five kilometres off Yukon's north coast, when he worked there as a new archaeologists in the 90s. The island has been used by Inuvialuit for thousands of years and more recently by American whalers, Anglican missionaries and the Northwest Mounted Police. 

"It's just an incredible, incredible place," Dawson said.

Now head of the anthropology and archeology departments at the University of Calgary, Dawson specializes in the digital preservation of heritage at risk. Using a drone and a lunchbox-sized device called a terrestrial laser scanner to calculate the exact coordinates of each element of the structure, he created 3D digital replicas of the sites at Pauline Cove. 

Dawson said the purpose for the project is twofold: to create an online virtual exhibit for people who can't visit the 116 square kilometre island, and to have blueprints of all the buildings in the event they need to be reconstructed. 

Barbara Hogan, manager of historic sites with Yukon Tourism and Culture, said works crews do restoration and conservation work on the buildings at Pauline Cove every summer, but Dawson's digital plans provide a safeguard. 

"We thought it was a good idea to get a comprehensive record of the site while we could in case the water levels rise and we're at a point where we can't capture some of the information," she said. 

"It's giving us a really, really good record of the outside of the buildings and the inside of the buildings and an overview of the historic settlement area." 

This digital image shows the Bone House building with a section of the roof removed. The interior serves as a storage area and makeshift museum. Inside are the remains of the USS Triton, as well as historic and pre-contact artifacts. (Submitted by Peter Dawson)

Unprecedented erosion and other threats

Researchers have called the erosion on Herschel Island "unprecedented," but Dawson says that isn't the only threat to the island's heritage structures. Animals have destroyed buildings, and he sees another threat on the horizon: polar tourism.

"We're starting to see more and more cruise ships arriving in the Arctic and of course they want to visit heritage sites like Herschel Island," explained Dawson. "You can imagine 20 or 30 or 60 disembarking passengers wandering around a site like Pauline Cove. It can cause damage to the buildings it can cause damage to vegetation." 

Dawson says it's important to come up with new ways to mitigate these threats. 

"Digital heritage preservation is, I think, one of the most interesting and potentially one of the most important ways to do this."

Herschel Island lies five kilometres off the north coast of Yukon in the Beaufort Sea. (CBC)

Virtual learning

Herschel Island is an important site for the Inuvialuit, who continue to use it and Yukon's north slope for traditional activities, but it still remains a challenge to get to. Summer access is by boat or air charter from communities in the Beaufort Delta region. 

Michelle Gruben with the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee said it was exciting for community members to "see" the the sites at Pauline Cove at a presentation Dawson recently gave in the community. 

"Not everybody gets to make their way to Herschel Island ... and to see this type of new technology that shows people the area, it's good to see," Gruben said.

This simplified computer model of an Inuvialuit sod house was constructed using architectural information from archaeological excavations in the Mackenzie Delta region and Inuvialut oral history. (Submitted by Peter Dawson)

Dawson said the next stage of the project is to create an online archive of the buildings complete with write ups about their history. He hopes to have that ready for the public in about a month from now. He said people will also be able to print the buildings on a 3D printer to make things like puzzles. 

"We're really interested in exploring how things like 3D printing can be used to again convey the history of Herschel island to a wider audience."

Flooding has damaged buildings and heritage sites on Herschel Island. (Submitted by Yukon Government)


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