In Alaska's Thawing Permafrost, Humanity's 'Library Is on Fire'
(Inside Climate News) But it's the changes in the environment that are the most profound: With temperatures rising faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, the very ground on which communities are built is slumping as the permafrost thaws, and the sea ice that sustains vital animal populations is melting earlier and re-forming later than ever before. Less sea ice means stronger storms and bigger waves, and villages across the region are at risk of falling into the sea as each year coastal erosion eats away at the shoreline. As Ahsoak works to preserve Inupiaq culture, the physical world that shaped that culture is facing an urgent threat.
That's the context in which the archaeologist Anne Jensen, a native of upstate New York who arrived in Utqiagvik 22 years ago, is at work on another project of cultural preservation. The Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation (UIC), the local native corporation, hired her in the 1990s to help preserve and learn about archaeological sites in the area. Every summer, Jensen and a crew of volunteers venture out to remote areas, sleeping in tents to excavate sites that are hundreds or thousands of years old. It was on one of these digs in the early 2000s that Jensen and Ahsoak first crossed paths—he worked as a logistics coordinator and bear guard as Jensen excavated a historical site on Point Barrow, learning about how Ahsoak's ancestors once lived. While their methods differ, Ahsoak and Jensen's missions in many ways align.
And in climate change, they face a common obstacle.
The homes, weapons, and even bodies that Jensen digs up are extraordinarily well preserved—unlike archaeological sites elsewhere in the world, these pieces of history have been locked in ice. But as the permafrost thaws, so do these sites, and as erosion eats away at the coast, it's washing away the history locked inside it. Once gone, the story that these sites can tell, about food webs, migratory patterns, and traditional ways of life, will disappear too. Just as Ahsoak is working to preserve his community's traditions, Jensen is racing to capture this historical record before it's lost—and, perhaps, to find in the region's past some answers for its future.
Archaeologist Anne Jensen has been working on cultural preservation projects in Utqiagvik for 22 years.
Credit: Sabrina Shankman