Norway’s melting ice holds archaeological clues to climate

26 Mei 2022

Norwegian archaeologists are finding buried treasure in the country’s ice-covered mountain ranges, but their discoveries underscore the urgency of climate action as the ice melts away due to climate change.

“Objects and remains of animals and human activity have been found that we didn’t even know existed,” says Dr. Birgitte Skar, an archaeologist and associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum. “Not a year goes by without surprising finds that shift the boundaries of our understanding.”

Items emerging from their long-buried state in the ice include an arrow shaft that’s 6,100 years old, the most dated item to be found in the Jotunheimen mountain range. A completely intact shoe found there is more than 3,000 years old. The items are discussed in a new report on what the ice has revealed to researchers, both about the artifacts themselves and the ever-encroaching threat of global warming.

“Data showing increased temperatures and meltdown mean that we are now in danger of losing rich and important information in large parts of the high mountains,” said the report authors in an English-language summary of the paper, written in Norwegian. “Thus, we also lose the understanding of the varied significance of ice for both culture and nature. At the same time, the ongoing melting provides a unique opportunity to study this now.”

One of the reasons for why the evidence of hunting practices, travel routes, and animals and plants is at risk has to do with Norway’s soil. It’s an acidic soil that limits how well artifacts are preserved, but the ice has always protected reindeer bones that date to 4,200 years ago or the genetic information of plant species frozen in time.

“The ice in the mountains has provided important habitats for many mountain species for thousands of years through to the present day,” said Dr. Jørgen Rosvold, a biologist and assistant research director at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA).   “The fauna finds also provide background information for the archaeological finds, for example by showing which species people might have hunted on the snow patches.”

But little is known about ice as an ecosystem, and that ice is now retreating. Satellite images taken in 2020 at 10 different ice locations show that 40% has already melted away. The most recent surveys from Norway’s agency for energy and water resources, NVE, find that 364 square kilometers of glacier ice and snow patch have melted since 2006.

Skar and her co-authors, a collaborative team of institutional and government experts, are urging that Norway’s ice losses drive policies that make climate change as well as archaeology a top priority. For example, some findings of skis, or scarecrows or horse-riding gear, suggest there are ice layers that survived warming at the end of the last ice age. They can now offer clues about climate history.

“The time is ripe for establishing a national monitoring program using remote sensing and systematically securing archaeological finds and biological remains from ice patches,” Skar said. The same program can be used to collect climate data about the ice across the last 7,500 years, and offer insights into how species responded to climate change in the past.

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