History is Melting: How Climate Change Is Destroying Arctic Archeological Sites
A headless body, stretched out along the beach, appears through the smudged window of our ATV as we sail across the sand. There’s a windy lawlessness up here along the Chukchi Sea; I’m reassured by the rifle lashed to the lead ATV in the caravan. The archaeologist at the helm passes the decaying creature without pause. Anne Jensen has seen many headless walruses before—this one was likely already dead when it washed ashore and was relieved of its tusks. Jensen’s not worried about poachers; the rifle is for polar bears—the Arctic’s fiercest of predators. And Jensen seems entirely capable of staying calm and slamming a bullet into one.
We’re just south of Barrow, Alaska, heading to an archaeological site at a place called Walakpa Bay. It’s a grassy coastline that’s been occupied by semi-nomadic native Alaskans for at least 4,000 years. Their story, told in material remains, is scattered across the landscape we traverse at 60 kilometers per hour, past flocks of ducks and eroding bluffs. Most archaeologists mine the soil to better understand how the animals, landscape, and climate of the past may have shaped a culture. For three decades, Jensen has tried to find and tell the stories locked in frozen dirt here on Alaska’s North Slope, the home of the Iñupiat, as they are known today. But as much as Jensen wishes she could do just that, her most important work on this thawing, eroding land is simply trying to protect what’s left of Walakpa, and other vanishing sites, from a warming climate.