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When Climate Change Melts Ice, These Archeologists Win

“It’s an in-house joke amongst us glacial archaeologists that we are some of the only beneficiaries of global warming.”

by Kathleen Caulderwood
Apr 22 2016, 3:00pm

A weapon shaft found in a Yukon ice patch. Photo courtesy Yukon Government

Climate change is the single most important problem facing humanity—but to a growing group of archaeologists, it's a blessing in disguise.

"It's an in-house joke amongst us glacial archaeologists that we are some of the only beneficiaries of global warming," said Lars Holger Pilo, a Norwegian archaeologist. "If the ice had not been melting due to climate change, we would have had no job."

The past decade was the hottest recorded since modern record-keeping began. Around the world, sheets of ice that have existed for thousands of years are melting faster than ever, revealing perfectly-preserved artifacts dating back thousands of years.

Pilo is one of many archaeologists around the world scrambling to recover what they can as the ice melts.

"The non-moving ice acts like a giant prehistoric deep-freezer," he said. "When we are lucky and artifacts melt out for the first time, it looks like it was lost yesterday."

Ice sheets form in areas of the world where snow falls in the winter but doesn't always melt in the summer, which causes ice to accumulate. As the years go on, it becomes thicker and thicker, trapping anything that lands on top of it, which is released when the ice melts. So far, archaeologists have dated objects up to 9,000 years old.

An ice patch in the Yukon. Photo courtesy Yukon Government

Though archaeologists have been finding artifacts and even human remains preserved in ice since the late 20th century, including the famous "Otzi man," the recent increase in global temperatures and new knowledge about the world's ice deposits has brought research to a fever pitch.

According to Pilo and other archaeologists, thousands of artifacts have been uncovered around the world using this technique, since the 1990s. The discoveries include Viking relics in Norway, human remains in the Andes in South America and ancient weapons in the Yukon and other parts of Canada.

"From an archaeological perspective this region was kind of a backwater," says Greg Hare, an archaeologist who works for the Yukon government and has been recovering artifacts from an area the size of Switzerland for the past two decades. "Now all these places which weren't considered the most exciting are now producing these well-preserved artifacts that nobody's seen before."

Until recently, many of these sub-arctic areas weren't known for especially exciting archaeological finds. Civilizations who lived there were mainly nomadic hunter-gatherers who left few permanent artifacts behind beyond some small pieces of stone tough enough to survive centuries buried in the ground. But the ancient ice created a perfect environment for preserving organic materials that would have been destroyed if exposed to the elements, which has been much more exciting for the archaeologists.

Artifacts recovered from ice in the Yukon. Photo courtesy Yukon Government

Hare, for example, has recovered arrows decorated with feathers and tied with animal sinew, and even some of its original color. If the same thing had been left out in the elements, it would just look like a stick.

These artifacts are not only fascinating to look at but can also be carbon-dated and tested for DNA, which can provide even further insights into the lives of ancient people.

According to Hare, there were about six people at a 2008 international symposium about glacial archaeology. By 2012, experts from more than 13 countries gave 36 presentations. This year, there will be 55.

"It's cool, it's a privilege to be part of something like this," says Greg Hare, an archaeologist who works for the Yukon government and has who has been recovering artifacts from ice fields there for the past two decades. "You don't often see the development of something new in archaeology."