We’re standing on the bank of Ukkuqsi, a site that Jensen, Utqiaġvik’s resident archaeologist, has been monitoring since 1994, ever since the frozen body of a girl who died eight hundred years ago emerged from the bluffs. Iñupiat people have lived in and around Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) for more than a thousand years. Their history has accumulated in the ground beneath their feet, preserved in the same permafrost soils that underlie most of Alaska’s North Slope.
…On top of the erosion, a warmer atmosphere is causing Alaska’s permafrost to thaw. As that happens, exquisitely preserved remains—clothing, sod houses, scraps of food, human bodies—are starting to rot.
…It’s a story that’s playing out across the entire world, from mountaintop glaciers to Caribbean islands. Over the last several decades, archaeologists have watched in alarm as history and heritage are erased by rising seas, melting ice, and worsening storms. Researchers liken the vanishing remains to books containing priceless knowledge about past cultures, past ecosystems, and past climates.
…Jensen shows me artifacts from Walakpa, a major coastal archaeological site about fifteen miles southwest of Utqiaġvik that’s likely been occupied on and off for over 3,000 years. The site, which contains an extensive record of Birnik and Thule Eskimo cultures, started to erode about five years back. The oldest, deepest layers, which sit right along the coastline, are going fast.
…Hillerdal estimates that the entire site has about a decade left. But the areas she is actively excavating, which are close to the erosion edge, “can disappear this winter,” she says. There’s a lot to lose.
“The preservation is extraordinary,” Hillerdal tells me. “We have grass ropes, basketry, pretty much an amazing sample of Yu’pik pre contact life from this time period. The number of museum quality pieces is in the thousands.”
…But it remains to be seen who would fund a global effort to survey and excavate vanishing sites—or even a fraction of them. In the U.S., the National Park Service has taken on a leadership role, both in terms of planning for climate change impacts on cultural heritage sites, and funding researchers who want to study threatened sites that reside within parks. But NPS funds are limited.