National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Archeology Month - Archeology and Climate Change

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

What does archeology have to do with Climate Change?

The relationship between humankind and nature can be understood and studied in various ways.  We come from many cultures and experiences that continuously change over time.  As such we may approach ways of manipulating our environment and responding to the threats of environmental hazards engendered by environmental changes differently.  Whether sudden or not so sudden, these changes are significant to past and present societal adaptation.  As humans interact with their environment and with each other, they leave behind evidence of their actions.  This evidence, often called artifacts, material culture, and/or ecofacts, a primary source of data when practicing archeology, allows us to provide a long-term, historically contextualized view of how humans adapt to social and ecological changes.  This study is not only critical to our understanding of past societal structures but provides new insight into human prosperity, strife, and perseverance as past generations have confronted the challenges of the contingent world around them. 

 

The passing of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was an important step in recognizing and honoring cultural resources, including sites that harbor vital archeological data.  These resources provide a portal through which we can enjoy and learn from the stories of humanity’s past and incorporate that knowledge within the intellectual framework of future generations to come.  We preserve this knowledge to breathe life into our heritages, foster our identity, and promote personal and cultural growth.   It is evident however, that across the United States archeological sites are a finite and increasingly threatened cultural resource.  Though the National Historic Preservation Act was originally passed to protect these resources from human impact, today they are faced with one of the most problematic challenges yet; the phenomenon of global climate change.

Global environmental change comes in a variety of forms that vary from region to region.  Some of the effects are measurable; however the long-term and cascading effects of climate change are just beginning to be understood.  The cascade effect is a term referring to a series of indirect effects triggered by an event or change.  For example, warming temperatures have a direct effect on precipitation and soil moisture, which can in turn have cascading effects on many aspects of ecosystems, including wildfire, invasive species, and species migration.  As another example, earlier and more sudden springtime melting of mountain snowpacks may increase peak flows of rivers and streams in the West.  As a result, western national parks are likely to experience an increase in flooding and erosion, which even at normal historical levels pose one of the largest threats to cultural resources nationwide.  Accompanying  arid conditions on western sites, sudden downpours that flood the dry land lead to significant cases of erosion and disturbance to archeological data, or material culture, and irreplaceable structures such as ancient pueblos, cliff dwellings, churches, and forts.  Wildfires, commonly brought about by prolonged conditions of drought, can burn historic structures, destroy archeological sites, and alter cultural landscapes.  The loss of vegetation due to fires and drought further exacerbates  the impact of erosion of such sites.  Bandelier National Monument provides an example, losing nearly all homestead archeological sites on the Pajarito Plateau due to an extensive fire in 2000 and approximately 80 percent of its archeological sites due to erosion.

Nearly all coastal archeological sites are being threatened or are already compromised because of coastal flooding.  With the level of the world’s oceans predicted to rise around 3.3 mm a year as a result from climate change, archeological sites and districts protected by the National Register, such as the Channel Islands National Park NR District, renowned for its abundant archeological treasures dating back 11,000 years, could be inundated by floodwaters in which most if not all knowledge of its cultural and natural heritage will be lost. Whatever the changes may be, from alterations in regional precipitation patterns to wildfires or coastal storms, global climate change is becoming more obvious to the casual observer as we and the cultural resources which we try to protect experience the impact of these changing conditions first hand. 

[photo] NPS photo NPS Photo

However as hinted before by the vast number of past human groups who have adapted to the threat of environmental changes, climate change is not a new story in history.  The archeological data of nationally, statewide, and locally significant resources, now within the light of climate studies, provides us insight that goes beyond the primary threats of the twenty-first century and into the woven fabric of history that we have studied thousands of years before us.  Archeological sites are quintessentially a record of human experiments across the landscape that can teach us lessons about human-climate interactions, current responses, and mitigation strategies through a better understanding of past human adaptations. Communicating this information and engaging the public can be challenging, but is necessary to bring awareness of how climatic change and its impact on archeological data is in fact already happening, and how if we do not act quickly we may lose the opportunity to learn and appreciate the sites that still do exist.

References:

Stephan Saunders, Tom Easley, Jesse A. Logan, Theo Spencer, Losing Ground: Western National Parks Endangered by Climate Disruption “Climate Disruption Threatens Cultural Resources” Rocky Mountain
Climate Organization, National Resource Defense
Council p. 13-15

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