National Geographic : 2017 Apr
144 national geographic • april 2017 climate change is now hammering the Earth’s polar regions. The result is a disastrous loss of ar- tifacts from little known prehistoric cultures—like the one at Nunalleq—all along Alaska’s shores and beyond. Ötzi, the Stone Age man whose body was found in 1991 as it emerged from a receding Italian glacier, is the most famous example of ancient remains brought to light by warmer weather. But a massive thaw is exposing traces of past peoples and civilizations across the northern regions of the globe—from Neolithic bows and arrows in Switzerland to hiking staffs from the Viking age in Norway and lavishly appointed tombs of Scythian nomads in Siberia. So many sites are in danger that archaeologists are beginning to specialize in the rescue of once frozen artifacts. They’re having to make hard choices, though. Which few things can they afford to rescue? And which will they just have to let go? In coastal Alaska, archaeological sites are now threatened by a one-two punch. The first blow: average temperatures that have risen more than three degrees Fahrenheit in the past half century. As one balmy day follows another, the permafrost is thawing almost everywhere. When archaeologists began digging at Nuna- lleq in 2009, they hit frozen soil about 18 inches below the surface of the tundra. Today the ground Archaeologist Rick Knecht (left) and community leader Warren Jones explore along the Arolik River after a local teacher saw a hunter’s bow protruding from the eroding riverbank. They didn’t find a site to excavate, but they investigated every possibility. “I’m not just going to sit back and let those things wash away,” says Jones.