NPS works to protect archeological sites on coast
Rising sea levels, frequent storms, flooding and thawing permafrost are causing archeological sites along the coast in the Western Arctic National Parklands to disappear at an alarming rate.
Scientists with the National Park Service in Kotzebue estimate nearly 350 feet of beachfront property has been lost to coastal erosion in the past 60 years. And with that property, an untold number of important links to the past have also sloughed off into the ocean.
The Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and the Cape Krusenstern National Monument are two of the four parks managed by the NPS in Western Arctic National Parklands.
A large-scale, multi-year project will continue this summer in those two coastal park units with more surveys and perhaps excavation of these cultural sites, said Michael Holt, chief of cultural resources for the Western Arctic National Parklands, who spearheaded the venture.
"These sites are important because they tell the story of people who lived and adapted from up to 5,500 years ago to the present and continue to add to the record," Holt said from Kotzebue last week.
Now in its third year, the park service's latest erosion project, in partnership with Portland State University, involves documenting, evaluation and excavation of the most relevant and sensitive sites; those at the greatest risk of disappearing.
But coastal erosion on these non-renewable resources has been the topic of study since the 1980s, said Holt.
"Successful implementation of this program will require a spirit of innovation and collaboration between resource management professionals, scientific researchers and traditional knowledge experts," Holt wrote in a summary of the project.
In the report, Portland State University professor Shelby Anderson, who teamed up with local archeologists on the project, echoed the importance of preserving these findings.
"Archaeological features along the active beach are currently subjected to coastal erosion and should be of immediate concern," Anderson said in the report by Holt. "Coastal erosion is expected to increase in the future, with climate change related shifts in storm systems, sea level, and permafrost. In areas where our survey included the interface with the active beach, we found rapid erosion occurring.
"Though we cannot hope to halt these unrelenting forces, we can implement aggressive measures to ensure these remarkable resources are fully documented before they are lost forever," she said.
While projects like this are usually reactive, Holt said, this particular endeavor is aggressive and somewhat proactive. Triage is done on the sites to see which ones are in the most danger of being washed away and mitigation is done in order, according to the level of erosion threat.
While most of the findings — sled runners, animal bones, pennants and subterranean house remains — are common, there is always the possibility that some distinctive feature or item will be found that links the past to the present in a new way.
"I think all archeologists approach previously unexcavated sites with the notion that there may be features or artifacts that are unique," said NPS archeologist Jon Hardes, who was part of the field crew for the project in 2012 and 2013.
"Some of the things that make these sites special for an archeologist is that it's not an isolated artifact on the landscape, it's the remains of an entire household or group of houses."
Food remains, remnants of transportation, tools and hunting implements all offer a glimpse into a past way of life.
"You're literally stepping into someone's former house," Hardes said. "And so it has a very personal feel to it. Every single thing there has been touched, or created, or shaped by human hands."
The artifacts can also give scientists a better understanding of what their diets were and how they processed that food, added Holt, and thus a better understanding of how people have adapted to changing resources.
"These remarkable resources are critical for understanding past settlement and subsistence strategies, as well as the spread of culture and technology throughout much of the circumpolar North during this time," Holt wrote.
The seaside areas around Ikpek and Arctic Lagoons, southwest of Shishmaref, in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve have been surveyed and inventoried by crews over the past two summers, while the eastern shores of the lagoons as well as the coastal side of Cowpak Lagoon, located north of Shishmaref, are on the agenda for this summer.
Nearly 75 percent of the northern Seward Peninsula shoreline — about 215 miles — has been actively eroding since 1949, while 59 percent of the Cape Krusenstern coastal shoreline, north of Kotzebue, has been washing away since that same year.
"It's quite a bit of land that's been washed away in a relatively short period of time," Holt said.
"All the climate change impacts, or climate change in general, have nothing but negative effects on cultural resources because of their nonrenewable nature."