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Archaeological sites in Canada are endangered by climate change

Race Against Time as Climate Change Devours Ancient Archaeological Sites in Canada


It is now a race against time to discover and try to save historic sites that are being endangered by climate change. Can archaeologists preserve Canada’s history before it’s too late?

We’ve almost all wished for a time machine at one point or another in our lives. If we could only go back and see what really happened (or, more usually, right a wrong we may have committed). Archaeology, paleontology, geology and related sciences; these are our modern time machines, or at least the best we have for now. It is through these research fields that we discover and revisit the past. But times are changing. As climate change affects the environment in Canada, it puts archaeolgical sites and discoveries at risk. What happens when time runs out for archaeologists, and our history is destroyed?

Cairn found atop a hill near Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

Cairn found atop a hill near Resolute Bay, Nunavut. (Dave Brosha/CC BY-SA 3.0)

New Discoveries Reveal Ancient Times

‘Time travelers’ (or archaeologists) such as Jennifer Herkes, Heritage Manager for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in Yukon, know first-hand the excitement of encountering history. This month, scientists in the north found a remarkably intact dart lost by an indigenous hunter 1,000 years ago.

Herkes told CBC News:

My heart rate started increasing, and I got goose bumps all over. I'd never seen anything like that before, it was amazing. The feathers, the sinew, the sap they would have used as, like, a glue to attach the stone point to the wood shaft — all of it is completely intact.

This exceptional atlatl (a type of spear-thrower used in the Americas) it is the first fully intact artifact of its kind to be found in the Yukon. Researchers will be able to use the materials to discover more about the different resources an indigenous hunter had accessible to him 1,000 years ago.

Feather on the throwing spear used by an indigenous hunter 1,000 years ago.

Feather on the throwing spear used by an indigenous hunter 1,000 years ago. (Carcross/Tagish First Nation)

This ancient hunting tool is one of many remarkable finds from the Yukon Ice Patches, an area nominated as a potential UNESCO world heritage site. But a rapidly changing climate is wreaking havoc on such ancient treasures, and archaeologists are now struggling to preserve artifacts like the one-of-a-kind atlatl and ancient heritage sites.

Climate Change is a Game Changer

The Union of Concerned Scientists Blog explains that the cold, wet conditions of the Arctic long-preserved organic materials such as bones, animal skin, fabrics, and wooden tools for thousands of years. It functioned as an excellent time-capsule or archive, holding ancient remains where they fell, in an excellent state of preservation. Their remoteness added to their long-term security. Archaeologists are seeing those locations and artifacts being destroyed in less than a generation due to the effects of climate change; permafrost thaw and coastal erosion.

Archaeological site - thule cairn. The Thule were the ancestors of all modern Inuit.

Archaeological site - thule cairn. The Thule were the ancestors of all modern Inuit.(Ansgar Walk/CC BY-SA 2.5)

At one time archaeologists believed that leaving finds in situ (in place where discovered) would serve to preserve finds. This was in accordance with the beliefs and rights of the Native peoples whose ancestors were being discovered and made the artifacts available to future generations of scientists who, with their greater knowledge might make more of the material than this generation. It made sense to document a find, and then leave it where it had so long been safeguarded by nature. But as shorelines erode, as weather warms, and as once-remote areas are becoming accessible, researchers have come to theorize that ‘ex situ’ might be the only way forward.

Protecting Cultural Heritage

Science Nordic writes that at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, archaeologist Vibeke Martens proposes launching a strategy of ‘ex situ’ preservation. This would be a paradigm shift in archaeology and heritage management. It would mean ancient artifacts or remains would have to be removed from where they were discovered, and preserved artificially. Martens believes it may now be too risky to leave the artifacts in the soil, saying, “We need to change the way we protect our cultural heritage.”

Whalebone used in the building of an ancient Thule home. Resolute, Nunavut, Canada.

Whalebone used in the building of an ancient Thule home. Resolute, Nunavut, Canada. (Timkal/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Arctic archeologist and professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Max Friesen told CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, “It’s a catastrophe. A majority of sites, including many of the most important ones, are already gone.”

“Sometimes, when we look at the problem, it just seems so overwhelming because we know there are literally hundreds of thousands of sites, and we can't even find them all let alone dig them all,” says Friesen.

There are too many sites and not enough time. More sites are vanishing than researchers have time or resources to record. The Globe and Mail reports, “In Canada, more than 30,000 known archeological sites fall within the region that the team studied, where the average temperature in July does not historically exceed 10 degrees Celsius. Now, many of those sites are either already lost or at imminent risk.”

It’s estimated that 180,000 Arctic archaeological sites are now under threat.

Don’t DIY Archaeology

Time travelling – in the form of archaeological research - is already hard enough. Climate change is not making things easier. While scientists scramble to find and preserve such sites, there are plans in motion to get public assistance in this enormous task.

Matthew Betts, a curator with the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec has been working to establish channels to locate and preserve artifacts and sites as they are discovered.

Betts told The Globe and Mail “while some sites are of such importance that efforts should be made to try to protect them where they are, in most cases the only realistic solution is to excavate and document sites as quickly as possible, before they are washed away.”

New projects, such as one by the Canadian Museum of History, involves seeking out ancient sites on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, where rising sea levels and climate change is causing costal erosion, and endangering previously preserved archaeological sites. The erosion is reportedly so severe that many sites discovered a few decades ago are now completely destroyed. 

This project, undertaken in close collaboration with the Acadia First Nation, seeks to find and excavate remaining sites before they’re “literally swept out to sea”. Without action, the ancient history of the Acadia First Nation, as well as countless other native peoples in Canada is under threat of destruction.

Parks Canada archaeologists have excavated ancient forts—Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux in Quebec City and a few other National Historic Sites—and created 3D reconstructions of the sites. This ‘preserves’ the sites long-term and is a good way to communicate the finds and their significance to the public.

Scanning and modelling ‘preserves’ ancient sites that could otherwise be destroyed by climate change in Canada.

Scanning and modelling ‘preserves’ ancient sites that could otherwise be destroyed by climate change in Canada. (3D Modelling ©Parks Canada)

While preserving the past is vital, it’s best not to do it yourself. Betts recommends if you do stumble upon an ancient site or discover an artifact, you should not disturb it or dig for other treasures, as doing so will only cause more destruction to the site. It’s best to report your find to the provincial authorities.

Maybe one day they will invent a time machine, but until then we’ve got to deal with weightier problems, like fighting climate change and preserving history - on behalf of those of the past, and for everyone in the future.

Top image: Archaeological sites in Canada are endangered by climate change. (Public Domain)

By Liz Leafloor


Hollesen, Jorgen et al. “Climate Change and the Deteriorating Archaeological and Environmental Archives of the Arctic.” Antiquity. 92.363, June 27, 2018, pp. 573-586. [Online] Available at:

Hollesen, Jorgen; H. Matthiesen and B. Elberling. “The Impact of Climate Change on an Archaeological Site in the Arctic.” Archaeometry. 59.6, 2017, pp. 1175-1189. [Online] Available at:

Markham, Adam. “Rapid Warming is Creating a Crisis for Arctic Archaeology.” Union of Concerned Scientists. June 29, 2018. [Online] Available at:

Semeniuk, Ivan. “Loss of Arctic Archaeological Sites a ‘Catastrophe’: Experts”. The Globe and Mail. June 28, 2018. [Online] Available at:

Quirks and Quarks, 2018. The Arctic is melting — putting thousands of archeological sites at risk. CBC Radio. [Online] Available at:

Matthew Betts, 2017. Public help survey endangered archaeological sites. Canadian Museum of History. [Online] Available at:

Elaina Zachos, 2018. Melting Glaciers Could Reveal How Our Ancestors Dealt With Changing Climates. [Online] Available at:

Jørgen Hollesen et al., Climate change and the deteriorating archaeological and environmental archives of the Arctic., © Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2018 [PDF] Available at:

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Parks Canada, 2017. Virtual reality and archaeology. [Online] Available at:



Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

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