Written by UWaterloo Faculty of Arts

Robert Park Department of Anthropology

Robert Park Department of Anthropology by UWaterloo Faculty of Arts

Is climate change washing away history?

Sannirut, a tiny peninsula, located on Bylot Island, Nunavut,  is home to some of the best-preserved prehistoric artifacts in Canada’s Far North, but the treasure trove of archeological gems are being threatened by global climate change.

Circle of stones in the Arctic with helicopter in background

Robert Park, professor of anthropology in Waterloo’s Faculty of Arts has spent much of his life unraveling secrets of how communities and cultures existed in one of the most difficult climates on earth.

When an archeological site remains continuously frozen, you get preservation that you won't find in other places.
Filming using a tripod in the Arctic

“Climate change is resulting in some of those things being lost in a series of freeze and thaw cycles,” Park explains, adding that as the land freezes and thaws again, it is slumping into the water and the rich stories of life in the north are being washed away with the land.

Sannirut has been continuously occupied since 2,300 BC and the frozen tundra and permafrost have done a good job of preserving artifacts that help researchers understand life of bygone cultures and communities.

Camera crew in Arctic

But climate change is threatening all of that. Prime sites are being lost faster than archeologists can dig them up.

“You can actually see the change in the last two or three decades,” he says.

Helicopter landing in Arctic, researchers unloading cargo

Park hopes that in the future he will be part of a mission to Sannirut with the goal of finding out if it is possible to slow down the effects of climate change.

“A lot is already being lost, but I think we can do something. Cost is a problem, because everything needs to be flown to the site by helicopter. What we bring can’t be too bulky or heavy and we need to work with local Inuit groups to ensure their approval and participation in whatever we end up trying. But we need to try.”