OTTAWA • A mad rush is needed to preserve or catalogue thousands of Arctic archaeological sites before they are washed away by warming hastening the thaw of permafrost and coastal erosion, a study says.
For millennia, the cold has conserved ivory artefacts, driftwood houses and human remains in often near-perfect conditions.
But with faster and more severe climate change in the poles than the rest of the world, the situation has become desperate, with far more sites that will soon be lost than scientists have the time or resources to document.
"An increasing number of ancient sites and structures around the world are now at risk of being lost," said the study published on Thursday in the research journal Antiquity. "Once destroyed, these resources are gone forever, with irrevocable loss of human heritage and scientific data."
There are at least 180,000 sites in an area that covers more than 12 million sq km in Canada, Russia, Alaska and Greenland.
Researchers pointed to an Inuit village on the Mackenzie River delta that was the site of first European contact, as an example of lost heritage. In 1826, a member of explorer John Franklin's famed Arctic expedition reported 17 winter houses and a communal structure there. Today, there is nothing left.
"It is often assumed that the remoteness and the climate associated with these sites provide protection enough... however, climate change means that this may no longer be the case," the study concluded, noting that Arctic temperatures have risen twice as fast as in temperate regions.
"It's the greatest heritage catastrophe in the world right now," said Mr Matthew Betts, a curator at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.
"It's happening all over but Canada has the world's largest coastline so we're at the apex of the crisis."