Human Eco-Dynamics and Climate Change Archaeology

Climate change is destroying the archaeological record.  This is happening around the world and especially in the Arctic.  Rising sea level, decreased snow and ice extent, and melting permafrost all contribute to the destruction of archaeological sites in northwest Alaska. The disappearing archaeological record provides an important and irreplaceable long-term context for understanding current climate change issues and human-environment interaction.

The following projects show different aspects of archaeology related to climate change, and how people past and present adapt to changing climates. Expand each section to learn more:

Arctic Climate Change and Archaeology

Since 2012, I have worked with the National Park Service and other local partners to assess and prioritize the impacts of climate change on archaeological sites and National Historic Landmarks in Northern Alaska. 

Taking a survey break (Photo by Jake Adams)

We surveyed approximately 36 miles of coastal and lagoon shorelines along the northern coast of the Bering Land Bridge National Monument in summers 2012 and 2013.  Activities included relocating previously identified sites, finding new sites, and carrying out various documentation and data collection activities at these sites.  A total of 30 new sites and 21 previously reported sites were located and carefully recorded.  Recording activities included mapping, photographing, collecting surface and subsurface samples for dating and analysis, and collecting information about present site condition.  Most of the sites identified through survey are the remains of past coastal settlements dating to the last 1500 years.  Today, people living in this area are concentrated in just a few coastal villages – Shishmaref and Wales – but in the past the local population was spread along the coast in many smaller settlements.

Eroding archaeological site.

The negative impact of on-going coastal and wind erosion processes were noted at many sites.  For example, many former houses are partially or completely eroded by wind and wave action.  Natural forces have moved artifacts from their original place of deposition, damaging or destroying contextual information that is crucial to reconstructing past human activities.  While much information has been lost through these processes, some sites are partially or completely intact.  

Looking to the future, we plan to work with local Native Alaskan communities to prioritize sites for additional investigation, and to develop other creative mitigation strategies. 

Human-Environmental Dynamics at Cape Krusenstern

Between 2007 and 2012, the University of Washington (UW) collaborated with the National Park Service (NPS) to undertake an interdisciplinary research project at Cape Krusenstern. Adam Freeburg and I led the archaeological research effort after participating in an NPS led field season at the site complex in 2006.  The focus of this work was the dynamic interactions between people and their environment over the 4,000+ years that people lived at Cape Krusenstern.  Cape Krusenstern is an ideal place to investigate these interactions because of the rich record of both past environments and past human occupation.  Archaeological research was focused on understanding human life ways – specifically material culture, subsistence, and settlement activities – as they relate to changes in the coastal environment and in regional patterns of climate change.  Jim Jordan (Antioch University-New England) carried out a concurrent geomorphological and paleoecological study at the site complex. Other project collaborators include Pat Anderson (UW) and Ben Fitzhugh (UW).

The beach ridges (Photo by Shelby Anderson)
Cape Krusenstern Beach Ridges

Archaeological fieldwork was carried out in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010.  The focus of this work was survey, mapping, and testing of both previously recorded and new archaeological sites at Krusenstern.    Survey activities were designed to collect spatial information about archaeological sites needed for reconstructing past settlement patterns and for revising the local chronology.  This included the collection of archaeological materials for radiocarbon dating.  In addition, artifacts and animal remains were collected to aid in reconstructing past subsistence activities and technological change.  Additionally, site condition and location data important for NPS resource management and site protection efforts was gathered.

Global Positioning System (GPS) was used to record spatial data during survey.  This technology allowed field crews to work quickly while recording and mapping archaeological site information.  The UW team integrated new data with legacy archaeological data collected in the late 1950s and 60s by archeologists J.Louis Giddings, Douglas D. Anderson and local Inupiaq resident Almond Downey who, “was instrumental in helping…locate the Cape Krusenstern archeological sites” during those highly productive years of exploration (Giddings and Anderson 1986). Legacy data was combined with newly acquired archaeological and paleoecological data in a geographic information system (GIS) platform.  The result is a powerful map-based research and management tool for the beach ridge complex.


Over the course of four field seasons, the archaeological team has surveyed, mapped and tested approximately 1/3 of the 9,000 acre beach ridge complex.  Over 1,500 archaeological features were recorded, including both newly discovered and previously reported features.  Results indicate that the settlement record from the last 2000 years is more complex and more extensive than previously thought (Anderson and Freeburg in review a,b).  While some research activities are still on-going, the results of the NPS funded work is summarized in a technical report (Freeburg and Anderson 2012).  Other final project products include a portable curriculum kit designed in collaboration with the Kotzebue community (schools, agency partners, and individuals), a fact sheet for park visitors and other interested members of the public, and a public poster that was distributed throughout northwest Alaska.

Port Clarence Archaeology Project

Between 2013 and 2017, I worked with a team of archaeologists from various agencies (BLM, BIA, NPS, etc.) to investigate several sites at Point Spencer, located in northern Alaska.  Our primary focus was a site reported by Helge Larsen more than 50 years ago as one of the only known stratified Ipiutak and Ancestral Iñupiaq/Inuit sites.  

Project goals were: 1) to establish the remaining integrity of sites at Point Spencer, 2) to study changing mobility, social interaction, and economic organization over the Ipiutak-Thule transition, and 3) to work with various local agencies in addressing the issue of subsistence digging around Port Clarence. We also reconstructed local landscape history through a geoarchaeological study of the study site and surrounding area.  

Over several years of fieldwork, we found that after a century of whaling, military, Coast Guard, and subsistence digging activities there are few undisturbed sites Point Spencer.  We did obtain new information about Ancestral Iñupiat hunting and fishing activities, and improve the local settlement chronology through a program of radiocarbon dating.  Our results inform region-wide understanding of Ancestral Iñupiat transition over the last 1000 years. Geoarchaeological research provides new data about the potential for older sites around the Port Clarence region, and ties the local coastal landscape history into more extensive research conducted to the north, in northwest Alaska.

Musk Oxen by Robin Mills