Arctic archaeological sites are now falling into the sea

Climate change likely means problems for our future, but it's also capable of doing damage to the past. A 500-year-old Alaskan site was first revealed as the ice melted, but now erosion is pulling the site into the sea.

The site, known as Nunalleq, belongs to that of the Yup'ik Eskimos culture, which once dominated an area of land roughly the size of Minnesota. They have remained largely absent from the archaeological record until artifacts began appearing out of the ground near the village of Quinhagak. It's kind of an archaeological catch-22: if the warmer climate hadn't melted the ice, we likely never would have discovered the site in the first place. But that same process is destroying the soil just as quickly as archaeologists can uncover its secrets.

University of Aberdeen researcher Dr. Rich Knecht explained the problem to the BBC:

"It's preserved by permafrost, and the permafrost is melting due to climate change. As it melts, it exposes the very soft soil to marine erosion: the shoreline retreats and the sites get damaged. This year, we were shocked by the amount of destruction. There were artifacts as big as tables thrown up on the bank by a single storm on a high tide. These storm periods are now lasting weeks longer because of the lack of ice cover. The sea ice cover is at a record low right now and continuing to drop, and every time that happens the site is at more at risk."

It seems bitterly appropriate that the archaeology of Nunalleq suggests a site that has always been defined by climate change. The site was occupied between 1350 and 1650, which means it coincides with the onset of the Little Ice Age, which would have forced the Yup'ik to adapt very quickly to the sudden, dramatic shift in climate. Dr. Kate Britton explains:

"By analyzing strands of the hair of multiple individuals, we're getting this picture of a very mixed and generalized economy incorporating salmon, caribou and other animal species. This is in the earlier phase of the site and we're now working on the younger sites which will give us a clear idea of how the people's diet was adapting to changes in climatic conditions which would have affected species availability. We can take this evidence and get an idea of what sort of changes were happening in the Bering Sea ecosystem and what sorts of changes were going on in terms of people's subsistence."

Dr. Knecht argues the site is "a story of resilience in the face of very rapid climate change." For more on this story, check out BBC News. Image by the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve via Flickr.