Climate Change and Archaeology in Northwest Alaska

Climate change is destroying the archaeological record.  This is happening around the world and especially in the Arctic.  Rising sea level, decreased snow and ice extent, and melting permafrost all contribute to the destruction of archaeological sites in northwest Alaska. The disappearing archaeological record provides an important and irreplaceable long-term context for understanding current climate change issues and human-environment interaction.

Eroding archaeological site

Eroding archaeological site

To address these issues, Portland State University (PSU) and the National Park Service (NPS) are partnered in a study of late Holocene coastal archaeology on the northern Seward Peninsula, within the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.    Project goals include: 1) collecting and analyzing archaeological data on past human occupation of this region in order to address questions about social and environmental change over the last 5000 years in northwest Alaska, and 2) gathering information about the impact of current climate change on archaeological sites in the project area in order to prioritize sites for mitigation and protection against future climate change impacts.

As part of this work, teams led by Shelby Anderson (Assistant Professor, PSU) surveyed approximately 36 miles of coastal and lagoon shorelines in summers 2012 and 2013.  Activities included relocating previously identified sites, finding new sites, and carrying out various documentation and data collection activities at these sites.  A total of 30 new sites and 21 previously reported sites were located and carefully recorded.  Recording activities included mapping, photographing, collecting surface and subsurface samples for dating and analysis, and collecting information about present site condition.  Most of the sites identified through survey are the remains of past coastal settlements and date to the last 1500 years.  Today, people living in this area are concentrated in just a few coastal villages – Shishmaref and Wales – but in the past the local population was spread along the coast in many smaller settlements.

Taking a break from survey (Photo by Jake Adams)

Taking a break from survey (Photo by Jake Adams)

The negative impact of on-going coastal and wind erosion processes were noted at many sites.  For example, many former houses are partially or completely eroded by wind and wave action.  Natural forces have moved artifacts from their original place of deposition, damaging or destroying contextual information that is crucial to reconstructing past human activities.  While much information has been lost through these processes, some sites are partially or completely intact.  One outcome of the current project will be recommendations to the NPS on how to prioritize future recovery efforts in this area given the threat of continued climate change impacts on these archaeological sites.

Project updates can be found on the blog page.  A final report was completed in 2015.  Results are summarized in this PowerPoint presentation: Nuluk Outreach 2015 June 8

Additional project information is included in a short piece in Witness the Arctic.

Related News Stories and Resources

Union of Concerned Scientists Report on National Landmarks at Risk from Climate Change Impacts – ucs_heritage_v4d_low-res (1)

Archaeologists Race Against Time in Warming Arctic Coasts – NPR Story

Archaeology and Climate Change in Northwest Alaska – KNOM Story

Archaeology and Climate Change in Bering Land Bridge: The Presence of the Past Story