Part 1: Archaeology and Climate Change – Past, Present, and Looking to the Future

Public Archaeology and Climate Change: Intersections and Trajectories

Climate change is not an issue that has been central to the election this year. We rarely hear the two major candidates discussing the issue, it was given minimal time in the debates, and there has been little media coverage of the candidates’ views. However, with global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent consistently breaking records, and CO2 concentrations surpassing the 400ppm threshold, climate is an issue that should be on everyone’s minds this election season and beyond. This is especially true given that the next President will be responsible for keeping the US in line with the recent Paris Agreement – the most comprehensive and stringent climate agreement ever to be entered by the US.

Archaeologists can – and indeed, are – playing a significant role in improving the science contributing to our understanding of climate change and raising awareness about its trajectory, historically and as we move into coming decades. Two key roles stand out: first, archaeologists can help shed light on the past effects of climate change upon human societies, and second, we can raise awareness about the ways that climate change is affecting us in the present: our sense of heritage, our livelihoods, our earth, and the policies, politics, and practices that have the power to mitigate (or exacerbate) these effects. In this post, we aim to provide an overview of the intersections of archaeology and climate change: we will explore these roles and highlight some of the research that is being done in the field to fulfill these important obligations.

Spiralling Global Climate: 1850-2016

Spiralling Global Climate: 1850-2016 (GIF:

The Social Effects of Climate from Past to Future

Archaeologists are in a unique position to augment climate science by providing proxy data such as faunal remains to help understand past ecological conditions and the effects that climate change had on the environment. For example, researchers at The University of Maine have used archaeological data to understand the effects that past climate changes have had on Maine’s ecosystem. In their work, they have found that climate cooling 3,000 years ago resulted in changes to the coastal fauna of the region such as a shift from oysters and quahogs to soft-shelled clams.

In addition, researchers are combining climatological records with archaeological evidence to understand how these changes may have affected societies in the past. The Long Term Vulnerability and Transformation Project (LVTP) is exploring the effects of climate change on cultures of the American Southwest. This has enabled them to develop an understanding of the social factors that influence resilience and vulnerability to environmental changes. Similarly, researchers from the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO) have examined past climate impacts in the North Atlantic region. For example, the investigations of the Long Term Sustainability of Human Ecodynamic Systems in Northern Iceland (MYCHANGE) project combines written records of subsistence activities including personal documents like diaries and official records with archaeological evidence to explore the ways that climate has impacted subsistence in the Mývatn district in northeastern Iceland from 1700 to 1950. This information can help us understand not only the effects of past climate change, but also the potential effects that our current climate changes might bring about.

The Impact of Climate Change in the Present Day

Most climate change communications experts agree that the best way to convince people to pay attention to climate change is to demonstrate the ways that it is affecting their lives now. Archaeologists can contribute by making apparent the effects that climate change has on important historical and cultural sites. Sea level rise, desertification, and other climatological and environmental changes are threatening important archaeological sites that provide invaluable insight into the human past. An example is the Walakpa Bay site in Alaska, which has been occupied by Alaskan Natives for over 4,000 years. As such, it provides an unique resource for understanding life along the Alaskan coast and how it has changed over a very long period of time. But these sites are not only valuable to archaeologists –  they are also important to the communities who have long associations with them. The Walakpa Bay site is currently threatened by rising temperatures in the region: the thawing coastline has eroded faster than any other region in the world. Local Iñupiat are concerned about ancestral burial sites that have been exposed by the erosion. Already, archaeologists, volunteers, and members of the indigenous community have had to excavate and reinter dozens of burial sites in the region.

More recent sites are threatened as well. A 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights 30 national landmarks at risk of damage or loss due to climate change. These include sites of national significance like the Statue of Liberty, archaeological sites like Mesa Verde National Park, and sites that are indicative of our diverse cultural heritage like the César E. Chávez National Monument in California and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland. Raising awareness about the effects of climate change on these important cultural sites can help the public understand the urgency of the issue and motivate them to take action to prevent climate change in the future.



Concluding Part One of Two of the MAPA Mini-Series on Climate Change and Archaeology

This is a brief overview – indeed, an introduction – to how archaeology’s relationships with climate change may impact our understanding and conversations around one of the most critical issues facing us today, globally and locally.  As Part 1 of a two-part mini-series on climate change, it is meant at an orientation to some of the themes arising in archaeological studies of climate change.  Particularly, we mean to highlight the archaeological potential to contribute to  conversations about – and help mitigate – the growing impacts that climate change has on sites, heritage, livelihoods, and our world at large.

Part 2 will address these themes in much more depth with a post by PhD student Kevin Gibbons at the University of Maryland.  In particular, he will discuss current government programs addressing climate change and cultural heritage, applied archaeological approaches to engaging the public in the politics and science of climate change, and the threats archaeologists and communities face as important archaeological sites are subjected to its destructive effects.

Climate change is an urgent issue for a variety of reasons. The fact that it has not been a major campaign issue is discouraging, especially considering the vastly different conceptions of it for the two Presidential candidates.  Archaeology provides a unique opportunity to bring this conversation to the fore, to frame it for our the public in new and challenging ways.

Please feel free to share your thoughts, work, or experiences in the comments section below!  And stay tuned for Part II.


– with many thanks to Jeremy Trombley for significant contributions to this post!

1 Comment

  • Tina Bennett-Kastor says:

    I found this post quite relevant to a current project of mine. I am in the process of developing a statement for the Linguistic Society of America concerning the effects of climate change/warming on endangered languages. I also would like to include threats to archaeological sites which may have evidence of written scripts that have not yet been deciphered. I would appreciate any references or referrals to archeaologists who may have insights into this potential problem.
    Thank you!

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