Human Ecodynamics 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 focus on 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 are working with local Native Alaskan communities to prioritize sites for additional investigation, and to develop other creative mitigation strategies. 

Willamette Valley Historical Ecology Project

The natural and cultural intersections between people and water in the Willamette Valley are essential aspects of regional history, culture, and environment. This project, funded by the Army Corps of Engineers, brings together a team of archaeologists, geologists/hydrologists, museum and GIS specialists, and Indigenous communities.  The goal is to understand the long-term history of human-water interaction over the last 10,000 years, and to use that information to inform future environmental restoration and heritage preservation efforts in the region. 

University graduate students and undergraduate research interns will participate in an intensive training program in interdisciplinary research methods and cultural resource management (CRM) .  All students will engage in original research as essential research team members, and will work with program faculty and staff to produce research posters for presentation to the professional CRM and archaeology community.

For more information:

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.

Musk Oxen by Robin Mills