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Melting Brooks Range snow patches may reveal ancient artifacts

  • Author: Asaf Shalev
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 16, 2015

A warming Arctic is likely to unlock important evidence of Alaska Native hunting in the Brooks Range. But when it does, archaeologists and paleoecologists may have a narrow window to collect it.

That's why a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher is working to predict where such artifacts and other evidence will emerge so scientists can respond quickly.

Molly Tedesche is a graduate researcher in snow hydrology at the university and her focus is on perennial snow patches.

These snow patches are akin to glaciers. Both are bodies of ice built up by the accumulation of precipitation over long stretches of time. But glaciers are larger and mobile, while snow patches are stationary.

Still, with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the global average, both are melting at faster rates. And that means anything locked away in that ice for thousands of years will soon be exposed.

The payoff for scientists could be considerable: clothing, tools and animal remains preserved over millennia by extremely low temperatures. But timing is critical. Once thawing begins, organic material quickly degrades.

"We are trying to predict which snow patches will melt soonest and picking patches that seem like humans could have climbed onto," said Tedesche, whose research is part of the National Park Service's Climate Change Response Program.

Tedesche says previous discoveries suggest searching the Brooks Range will be worthwhile. Many ancient artifacts have turned up at lower elevations around nearby lakes and rivers within the Gates of the Arctic National Park, she said, and well-preserved artifacts and animal remains were recently found in ice patches in the mountains of the southern Yukon Territory.

In the first stage of the work that started earlier this year, Tedesche combined satellite imagery of the Brooks Range with a mapping program to identify the patches most vulnerable to warming.

Together with researchers from other fields, she further narrowed the range of places likely to yield archaeological treasures -- with the guiding principle that where caribou congregated, so did people.

Today, tracking devices allow scientists to follow caribou and study the movement of herds. Tedesche's team examined data on the Western Arctic herd to approximate the behavior of the animals in ancient times.

For caribou herds both ancient and modern, the Brooks Range offered a respite from mosquitos and a way to cool down in the summer. But much of the mountain range's terrain would have been difficult for hunters to traverse, something which helps narrow the number of places worth investigating.

This summer, Tedesche and Chris Ciancibelli, an archeologist for the National Park Service, traveled by helicopter and landed on a number of promising snow patches. Ciancibelli conducted an archaeological survey but did not make any discoveries.

Still, the trip allowed Tedesche to dig into the ice and take measurements, contributing to her understanding of snow patches.

The coming months will involve doing "office stuff," such as examining ice samples collected over the summer and analyzing additional aerial photos and satellite images.

And in the meantime, she'll be applying for grants to support future trips to the Brooks Range to continue to study the melting snow patches and help researchers find any elusive artifacts that emerge before they're irrevocably lost to decay.

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