Polar Heritage at Risk

Arctic and Antarctic Heritage at Risk


The Arctic and Antarctica are the frigid realms around which our world revolves. This paper reviews polar cultural heritage in the contexts of geography, climate, environment, culture/s and governance. The polar regions are experiencing rapid climate change; an anthropogenic phenomena as the Earth was in a cooling phase that humans have reversed with industrialisation (NOAA 2001). The risks to polar cultural heritage are examined in terms of the natural environment, and direct and indirect anthropogenic impacts. Central to this challenge is the need to record and monitor archaeological areas, historic sites, monuments and associated artefacts, to inform risk preparedness. Responding to these risks is considered in terms of current projects and potential endeavours. In addition to a literature review and field observations, this paper is based on the informative and insightful contributions made by numerous colleagues, especially members of the ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee (IPHC). Two cases are reviewed: the 19th-century shipwrecks HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in Nunavut, Canada; and Swedish explorer and scientist O. Nordenskjöld’s former base at Snow Hill, Antarctica. In conclusion, polar cultural heritage is at the forefront of climate change, and can inform broader global heritage at risk policy, planning and practise.


Antarctica, Arctic, Climate, Heritage, Governance.

1. Introduction
The polar regions are fundamentally different. The Arctic is centred on a frozen ocean surrounded by nation states with a diverse range of indigenous peoples for whom the north is home and, comparatively recent, communities – both permanent and transient. A fundamental feature of the terrestrial Arctic are large areas of permafrost – ground that remains frozen all year. Arctic governance is enacted through national law, regional agreements and, in particular, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The High Arctic is the domain of the Polar Bear. In contrast, Antarctica is a frozen continent surrounded by a hostile sea with no permeant population or history of an indigenous presence. Several nations claim areas of Antarctica, but all territorial claims are on hold under the Antarctic Treaty (1959). Antarctica is governed through consensus by the treaty parties, as a region of peace, science and environmental stewardship. Antarctica is located at the physical extremity of humanities’ endeavours on Earth, and reveals our shared humanity when confronted by an environment that is aesthetically profound yet fundamentally dangerous. The penguin, a flightless aquatic bird, is the iconic creature of the south. Both regions have cultural heritage from exploration, science and technology, economic activity and intangible culture that is at risk. The physical reality is that polar historic structures, sites and monuments and archaeological sites are in a fundamentally hostile natural environment, many are threatened through climate change, increased and in some cases uncontrolled visitation, and unauthorised or criminal activity.

2. The Arctic
2.1 Natural Environment and Hazards
The Arctic has a diverse range of climates from areas with trees on the Eurasian and American Arctic landmasses to areas devoid of any tall flora, the ice-clad areas of Greenland and other northern islands and archipelagos, and the Arctic Ocean and seabed. The region experiences extreme winters and, comparatively, warm summers during which flora, in many cases microbial, and fauna are active. Sea and river ice can be shoved ashore, scouring sites and crushing structures within its path. Polar bears are curious and powerful animals that have damaged and destroyed structures.
2.2 Climate Change
The Arctic is being profoundly altered by climate change. The extent and depth of sea ice are reducing, and within decades the Arctic Ocean will, effectively, be ice-free during summer. Climate change in the Arctic is in a feedback loop when sea ice, which reflects the majority of the sun's energy into space is replaced by a clear ocean that absorbs the majority of the energy - further reducing the amount of winter sea ice. The situation is exacerbated by the Eurasian and North American landmasses that are also warming. In recent decades, permafrost temperatures, in which many structures have their foundations, have risen between 0.5°C and 2°C; and in recent years, Siberia has experienced heatwaves and large-scale fires.
2.3 Anthropogenic impacts
Many historic structures and associated artefacts that were previously located within the comparative safety of the ice, permafrost or cold water are now exposed to the increased risk of damage or destruction (Hollesen, et al. 2018, 573–586). Increased storminess poses a moderate to severe risk to sites and structures while the addition of waves, surge events, above and below the waterline, or ice shove (Mahoney 2004) that can be devastating. The coherence of ground upon which many coastal sites and structures are located is at risk due to the silty sand and soil that, when exposed to water (from run-offs, streams and rivers and the sea) and wind, erodes rapidly. These processes can also occur, albeit more slowly, to moraines of glacial regolith and rock. Sections of Arctic coastline are being eroded at a swift rate, with many potential archaeological sites being swept into the sea. However, other factors can influence erosion, such as ‘protective dunes or gravel ridges’ demonstrating the point that ‘all erosion is ultimately local’ (Mason 2014, 45-47. Barr, et al. 2012, 5). In the majority of the Arctic, flora (trees, shrubs and grasses) are growing further north and at higher elevations (IPHC 2014, Chapter 28. Rees, et al. 2020). This growth can cover archaeological sites, with root structures damaging artefacts and disturbing the stratigraphy.
Arctic tourism operates in three ways. The first is organised tourism with reputable operators who respect human culture on an ethical basis and also appreciate its economic value through sustained management and care. Secondly, private individuals venture into the Arctic and in some instances, engage in damage, destruction and looting. Finally, there are the people employed by the government or industry in the Arctic, who during their spare time may visit historic sites and monuments. Normally, these visitors abide by the highest standards. The thawing of Siberian rivers bank permafrost allows thieves using high-pressure hoses to scour the riverbank in the hopes of exposing mammoth ivory. The most extensive collections of ivory are archaeological sites, with the resultant destruction of the archaeological record (Pitulko 2014, 77-79).
2.4 Responses
The enormity of the sub-Arctic and Arctic, and the complexity of environmental changes, e.g. the treeline is advancing at different rates (Rees 2020), requires remote sensing and ground-based validation to monitor environmental risks ranging from coastal erosion to changes in vegetation. Given the scale and range of risks, the heritage community is confronted by the challenge of aspiring to have sites retained in-situ with their associated structures and artefacts, while the reality is that inaction may result, by omission, in their being damaged or destroyed. Additionally, access to and work in the Arctic is expensive and dangerous.

Increasingly, the indigenous peoples of the north are acknowledged and respected for their essential knowledge and expertise when evaluating climate change (IPCC 2014, 1583), and developing responses to the risks posed to cultural heritage. There are also more, comparatively, recent communities that have been established in the Arctic who have gained experience and knowledge of their respective regions.

2.5 Case study
Knowledge from indigenous communities in Nunavut, obtained in both the nineteenth century and present day, informed the successful search for the wrecks of HMS Erebus (figure 1) and HMS Terror, two ships lost during the 1845 Franklin Expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. The local community now have a central role in protecting these shipwreck sites as Guardians, and retain traditional indigenous use of the sites which are legally protected under Canadian federal law (Parks Canada 2019, A and B). The United Kingdom has ownership of a selection of artefacts from these Royal Navy ships, with the remaining artefacts being jointly owned by Parks Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust,
‘The artifacts from the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site will be protected based on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit knowledge) and the principles of cultural resource management, including the highest standards of collection and conservation. The jointly-owned artifacts will be presented from an Inuit perspective and every effort will be made to display them within the Nunavut Settlement Area’ (Parks Canada 2019. B). 

An issue that may arise from the decline in sea ice, in certain areas, are changes in currents and storm-induced turbulence through the water column that kinetically impact underwater archaeological sites by damaging shipwrecks and distributing artefacts. Climate change is allowing invasive fauna, flora and microbes to migrate north and become established in the Arctic. Informing and influencing decision-making processes requires remote sensing, onsite monitoring and regular inspections.

The REMAINS of Greenland: REsearch and Management of Archaeological sites IN a changing environment and Society, cooperative between The National Museum of Denmark, The Greenland National Museum and Archives and Center for Permafrost (CENPERM) at University of Copenhagen has produced comprehensive research on the risks to Greenland’s archaeological heritage.

3. Antarctica
3.1 Natural Environment and Hazards
Antarctica is the windiest and coldest continent on the planet, with over 99% covered by ice and snow. Structures and artefacts built on the ice usually become covered in snow, and then embedded in the ice that moves inexorably towards the ocean, where within calving icebergs the remains will be deposited on the seabed as the iceberg melts. Sites and structures on solid ground are exposed to numerous risks. The Terra Nova Hut, located on Ross Island from an expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN, is exposed to freeze-thaw cycles, high winds that scour the wooden hut with volcanic scoria and ice crystals, sea spray that deposits salt on the structure, is close to an ice tongue that could collapse and cause a tsunami, and located at the base of an active volcano. Antarctic wildlife can also cause damage and destruction, ranging from Skua gulls tearing open containers to seals occupying sites and structures, and the accumulation of layers of acidic and pungent penguin guano. A myth of timelessness is associated with Antarctic heritage with clichés such as ‘frozen in time’, ‘time has stood still’ and ‘just as they left everything’. Whilst there are valid reasons for Antarctic heritage sites evoking powerful emotions, the well-known sites, such as the Terra Nova Hut, are carefully curated structures and artefacts which have cost millions of dollars to conserve and interpret. Artefacts may remain frozen in ice, permafrost or preserved underwater but when they are exposed to the atmosphere they are at risk of rapid deterioration or destruction.
3.2 Climate Change
In the Austral summer of 2019-20, a record temperature of 18.3ºC was recorded at Argentina’s Esperanza Base at the north of the Antarctic Peninsula (NASA 2020), continuing a trend of increasing temperatures on and around the Peninsula and other areas such as the Ross Sea. Globally, this is of concern as Thwaites Glacier is in a warming area; if this glacier collapsed the inland ice it holds back would begin to flow into the World Ocean (Scambos, et al. 2017).
3.4 Anthropogenic impacts
Reduced sea ice has allowed ships to sail farther south. In 2010, private French sailors damaged Wordie House (Historic Site and Monument 62). France pursued and punished the perpetrators (France, 2011).
3.5 Responses
Antarctica is remote, expensive to access, and emergency assistance may be delayed by severe weather. Responding to these challenges requires resources and endurance. In addition to government-supported access, the Antarctic tourism industry can support heritage endeavours with transportation for conservation teams, and encouraging passengers to share images that have been taken of cultural heritage sites over the years. These can be used to evaluate changes in the structure/s, artefacts and local environs.
3.6 Case study
Dr Otto Nordenskjöld’s Swedish Antarctic Expedition, 1901–03, established an overwintering science base hut (figures 2&3) on Snow Hill Island. Their support ship, Antarctic, was unable to reach them the following spring due to impassable sea ice, then was crushed and sunk. The Argentine ship Uruguay rescued the expedition survivors (Headland 2009, 233).

The hut is located in a rapidly warming area of Antarctica. To inform future decision making, Swedish and Argentine heritage experts, logistically supported by Argentina, have commenced a comprehensive recording and monitoring programme that included: photogrammetric and Lidar surveys, installation of an automatic weather station (AWS) and temperature and humidity sensors in the huts.

Utilising historical images and data, and a data set compiled in the coming years, informed decisions can then made on potential stabilisation techniques or other courses of action. Central to this project will be understanding, ‘the interaction between the climate, the permafrost, the soil and the hut’ (Avango and Fontana 2020).

Since the 1950s, New Zealand has undertaken the preservation of Captain R.F. Scott’s RN and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition huts on Ross Island. This multi-decadal endeavour has resulted in a wealth of experience and expertise, which has informed other Antarctic heritage projects (New Zealand 2015).

4. Conclusions
4.1 The peoples of the north embody exceptional levels of human resilience, and over centuries or millennia, have lived sustainably in the Arctic. The heritage conservation decisions that these communities make should be respected and resourced accordingly. There are also other communities in the north that should be treated with respect and engaged in heritage matters;
4.2 The Arctic’s scientific, industrial and military heritage provides historical information, and can provide baseline scientific data on regional and global environmental impacts;
4.3 Antarctic heritage relates to two distinct endeavours: the heritage associated with the historical and ecologically devastating commercial exploitation of seals and whales, and the heritage of exploration, peace, science and environmental stewardship. The remains of these endeavours are at risk from the environment, ‘clean-ups’, lack of resources for conservation, and damage and theft;
4.4 Arctic and Antarctic cultural heritage is at risk from anthropogenic warming that has increased the melting of ice in the polar regions and other areas of the cryosphere. The resulting increase in sea level and water content in the atmosphere is impacting heritage on a global scale;
4.5 The IPHC and its members, and other heritage colleagues, are engaged with polar heritage at risk. Their ongoing analysis and fieldwork are central to risk preparation, classification, identification and response.

The author acknowledges the informative and insightful contributions by, and discussions with, colleagues in ICOMOS, the International Polar Heritage Committee, polar heritage organisations, national polar programmes and the University of Cambridge’s community of heritage scholars and students. Special thanks are due to Dr Susan Barr, Dr Michael Pearson, and to the Franklin Interim Advisory Group, Nunavut and Parks Canada Parcs Canada.

Dr Bryan Lintott
ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee


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