ARCHIVED - Max Friesen

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Max Friesen is the Chair of the Polar Archaeology, an organization trying to figure out how to best preserve the archaeological record in the north.

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Podcast Transcript

FRENCH VOICEOVER: Ce podcast a été enregistré à l'Année polaire internationale 2012.

ENGLISH VOICEOVER: This podcast was recorded at the International Polar Year 2012 Conference.



ENGLISH VOICEOVER: From knowledge to action.

FRENCH VOICEOVER: De la connaissance à l'action.

HOST: Climate change puts the archaeological record in the Arctic at risk. Max Friesen is the chair of the Polar Archaeology Network. That organisation is trying to figure out how to best preserve the archaeological record in the north. Dr Friesen sat down to talk about what can be done at the IPY 2012 Conference in Montreal.


HOST: Tell me what parts of the archaeological record are in danger of being lost due to climate change.

GUEST: Well the Arctic is a very complex place with a long prehistory and history. And included in the archaeological record are literally thousands of years of cultural history of many different groups. And in many cases of course these peoples didn't have written history, so it's in some cases literally the only record we have. But in addition, even for recent periods – say for European expansion and exploration – often you need to look at the archaeological record in order to figure out what people were actually doing as opposed to what they wrote about later. But in addition to the cultural history that you can get out of the archaeological record, there is also an irreplaceable record of biological organisms. In other words, on these sites you often get people, because of their hunting and their plant gathering, concentrating biological materials which then get frozen into the ground. And they've essentially been frozen perfectly since then. And this doesn't happen anywhere else. So in other words, biologists can come and look at materials from archaeological sites and actually get dated samples from hundreds or thousands of years ago to look at changes in population dynamics, ecological systems – that kind of thing. And all of this is currently in radical danger of destruction.


HOST: And what are the factors of climate change that are the most damaging to those parts of the record?

GUEST: Well there are probably three or four major potential impacts that climate change has. First of all, with warming temperatures permafrost is thawing. So archaeological sites, which in many cases have literally been frozen since people left them – so that means that organic materials, like even feathers and skin and hair, are perfectly preserved – they've been frozen since people abandoned the sites. But now that the permafrost is thawing and the active layer is getting deeper every summer, those materials are suddenly exposed to microbial activity, and they are at risk of being destroyed. Now in addition, almost everyone in the past in the Arctic settled on the sea coasts. And sea coasts are now subject to a huge amount of erosion for a couple of reasons. One is sea levels are rising and projected to rise more because of melting of ice caps etc. And another is that weather is changing, and so there can be increased storminess. So you combine these two together, and there is more wave impacts on coasts and that kind of thing, so all these archaeological sites are being destroyed. But another impact is modern human activity. And with the melting of sea ice, there is increased shipping, which means increased wake impacts of big ships, construction of ports and mines, and even eco-tourism, which can lead a lot more people to visit archaeological sites. So all of these things together mean that there's this kind of perfect storm of destructive forces coming at archaeological sites.


HOST: So there's concern about that in the Canadian north. Is it an international concern as well?

GUEST: It's absolutely international. I'm representing the Polar Archaeology Network, and we have members from all of the circumpolar nations in the north, so we represent the Arctic and the sub-Arctic, but also even the sub-Antarctic. We have people working in Tierra del Fuego, for example. And there is variability across high latitudes, but in all cases some of these impacts are happening. So it's a completely international problem, yes.


HOST: Obviously a lot of these records are from Inuit communities. What do you hear from them about the work that you're doing? Are there concerns around losing those archaeological sites?

GUEST: One of the issues that we're dealing with is, given that there are literally thousands – tens of thousands of archaeological sites at risk – how are we going to decide which ones are important enough to save, if you will, because a majority really are going to be destroyed no matter how hard we work. And so there is interest from both northern communities and northern governments. So, for example, I'm getting a project going myself now with the Inuvialuit in the Mackenzie Delta where we're collaborating with a major Inuvialuit social and cultural organisation in order to get at these issues of how do we prioritise the most important sites for them.


HOST: And what can be done?

GUEST: You know, as I said, unfortunately we can't do everything. But I think what we have to do is first of all raise awareness because unfortunately, as with everything else, some of this is going to come down to money. But we also have to develop the methods of modelling. For example, which regions of the Arctic are most at risk because, for example, permafrost melting and sea level change is variable across the Arctic. So we have to collaborate with scientists working with permafrost, with sea levels, with microbial activity and with many other disciplines in order to produce computer models for where are the worst-affected places and, in essence, survey them first. And then it's just a matter of sort of doing largely old-fashioned archaeology which means going out surveying, finding the sites, and determining which parts of them are important enough to save. And I should point out that in some of these areas the coast is eroding literally at metres per year. So that means that you can literally have entire sites disappear in a few years. So it's often a case where you can't sort of wait around, and you have to make the decisions quickly.


HOST: You're here at the International Polar Year Conference. What is the relationship between your work and the other scientists who are here?

GUEST: The overall theme of the conference is "knowledge to action", and so the reason that we wanted to bring this particular message here was because this is – you know, we've been building the knowledge now for decades about how the archaeological record is being impacted, and the time has really come to act. So I think we're hitting a lot of the same themes. A lot of the sessions I've been going to have been talking about different sorts of vulnerabilities, community vulnerabilities to slumping infrastructure, or hunters unable to go out and hunt for the species they'd like to because the ice patterns are changing. So this is just another category of vulnerability in northern regions which has to be addressed. So it actually seems to sync up pretty well with a lot of the other things going on here.

HOST: Thank you.

GUEST: You're welcome.


HOST: Max Friesen is a professor of archaeology at the University of Toronto. This research project was partially funded by the Government of Canada. You can hear more podcasts or watch a video from the International Polar Year Conference at Or you can find this podcast at iTunes. Thanks for listening.


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