Focus on the natural and cultural heritage of Greenland

In May 2016, the UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Union of Concerned Scientists have published an alarming report about the increasing vulnerability to climate changes of some World Heritage Sites (This report is available for free on the UNESCO website : http://whc.unesco.org/en/activities/883/). It is reporting some updated data on global warming but the report’s goal is to give a work basis for the future and the management, including tourism, of these World Heritage Sites.

Through 31 cases study, this report deals with the complex relationships between climate changes, World Heritage Sites, and tourism. However, this article will be focused on the case study of Greenland, first country concerned by global warming and this article is followed by an interview of Christian Koch Madsen, Danish archaeologist specialized on Greenland.

Ice melting and polar tourism

Today, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are at their highest for the last 800 000 years. These high concentrations, due to human activity, lead to an uprising of 1°C of global temperatures on earth. This uprising brings major changes, notably ice melting. The icefjord of Ilulissat in Greenland, a World Heritage Site since 2004, is an emblematic example. Even if it is situated 400 kilometres north away from the Arctic Circle, the site is welcoming 60 000 tourists every year. The place is indeed spectacular! Over there, the huge Jakobshawn glacier (or Sermeq Kujalleq for Greenlanders) meets the coast, and during summer, the ice is crumbling before falling into the Arctic Ocean. Glacier calving is an impressing phenomenon, as this amateur video can attest (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUAwR16ogLQ)

Greenlander government try to promote the icefjord of Ilulissat as a must-see before Sermeq Kullaeq disappearance. Indeed, the glacier is currently shrinking very quickly, 17 kilometres for 2012 alone! At the same time, the number of tourism boats in the area triple between 2003 and 2008, from 13 to 39 during those five years. If this melting speed stays the same, the icecap could melt completely in a thousand years and the sea levels will rise by 55 meters throughout the globe. If the Greenlander government is showing the visit of Ilulissat as a way to promote green consciousness about the emergency of climate warming, one can notice the paradoxical situation with the promotion of tourism and the increasing of boats in the area. For the moment, tourism is responsible of 5% of total carbon dioxide emissions, and this figure could double during the next 25 years.

Fig. 1: Coastal erosion caused by the lack of ice and icebergs as natural wave breakers cased is in places a major threat to Greenland’s cultural heritage, as here at Kangerluarsorujuk where a Norse farm is being washed into the sea (photo: C.K. Madsen 2006).

An archaeology of emergency

The uprising of sea levels is difficult to apprehend and our mind easily dismiss it to a distant future, but ice melting is already a current problematic. If Sermeq Kujalleq’s melting is offering for now the spectacular show of a World Heritage Site’s destruction, behind the sliding door, the cultural heritage of Greenland is also threatened.

Fig. 2: An unexpected threat to Greenland’s cultural heritage caused by the warming climate is a rapid increase in the vegetation cover. Here in the Austmannadal the Norse ruins are now completely overgrown by shrub (photo: C.K. Madsen 2012).

Thus, Greenland soils are holding a lot of remains connected to a large number of human cultures and currently, a few archaeologists are investigating them in order to learn more about their customs and ways of life. Unfortunately, the knowledge about theses cultures is threatening by climate changes. Storming more abundant and stronger is degrading some cultural monuments, situated for most of them near the coast and less protected by iceberg. Above all, the melting of permafrost, the part of soil which is (normally) constantly frozen, is bringing the proliferation of bacterium and mould which are deteriorating the bones and wood materials of these millenarian cultures, when they are not simply falling into the ocean. Ten meters of coast have been submerged during the last 80 years!

According to recent researches, in less than one century, these archaeological vestiges could disappear, dragging away with them the mysteries of Saqqaq and Dorset cultures; but also, a great knowledge about human cultures during the Stone Age, because only permafrost could preserve materials not made of stone and belonging to such ancient cultures.

This phenomenon of degradation is very fast because the proliferation of bacterium enabled by global warming is creating heat and thus accelerates the ice melting. Of course, permafrost melting doesn’t have consequences on the cultural heritage plan only. Permafrost is locking up twice as much the total of carbon dioxide currently present in the atmosphere. Even if the scientific community isn’t certain about the modalities of the release of this gas mass, the consequences of this release in the atmosphere would be dramatic.

Fig 3: A well preserved Thule culture midden is being investigated during the REMAINS of Greenland project. Local students are involved in the project to train them to be the heritage managers of the future (photo: Roberto Fortuna 2016).

Thus, sombre are the looks on Greenland future…

In order to light up the situation under a different angle, Patrimoine sans frontières has contacted in November 2016 Mr Christian Kock Madsen, a Danish archaeologist in mission to Greenland.we discussed the impact of climate change on Greenlander cultural heritage and the actions engaged to deal with it.

PSF : Christian Koch Madsen, could you please present us your curriculum and your current job?

C.K.M. : I'm a half time curator at the Greenland National Museum & Archives and half time postdoc at the National Museum of Denmark. I have worked with Greenlandic archaeology the last 12 years, both on research and rescue projects. My main academic focus has so far been on Norse archaeology, especially settlement and land use patterns, but I also have a keen interest in all other periods of Greenland's prehistory and history, and increasingly involve myself in research in and discussions of human-environment dynamics in arctic archaeology in general.

In your opinion, what is the most problematic issue regarding archaeology in Greenland today?

Our most pressing issue is the rapid climate change that is already unfolding across the arctic and which presents great potential, or already existing, threats to our cultural landscapes. In the past, we could to a great extent rely on our generally fairly stable, cool and dry environments, small populations and limited industrial developments, to protect Greenland's well-preserved heritage sites with organic artifacts of up to 4500 years of age in some areas being preserved on the surface. With the warming climate our environments are changing, effecting loss of permafrost, increased erosion and increased vegetation cover etc., all of which are diametrical to the former high degree of preservation of features and artefacts telling of human life in the Arctic over more than 4000 years. With only a handful of local archaeologists and seasonal foreign researchers, limited resources, and a short working season, we have very slight opportunities for monitoring our vast country and saving or documenting the heritage that is even now being lost.

Is anyone actually addressing those issues through specific programs or action?

In order to equipment heritage managers with some means of ameliorating the above threat picture, the Danish and Greenlandic national museums are over the next three years running a research and monitoring project that by scientific robust methods is trying to establish the rate, extent, and scale of the climate change related threats that are, or will, threaten Greenland's heritage sites and their preservation. The project is based on the premises that realistically we will only be able to save a tiny proportion of the heritage sites that are under threat. The project thus strives to equip heritage managers with tools to determine where and when threats to heritage sites are the greatest, in order for us to best plan and apply our fairly limited rescue efforts, and to guide foreign researchers to sites where they can best aid the Greenland National Museum & Archives in this process.

Many different human cultures once lived in Greenland. How would you describe the relation of today’s Greenlanders with their cultural heritage? Are they aware of the diversity of their heritage? Do they relate more to one in particular?

The identity and self-awareness of the present day Inuit is to a high degree linked to their understanding of their immediate ancestors, the Thule culture Inuit. In both politics and culture, the Greenlanders celebrate their ancestors, their prowess, their ability to adapt, and their knowledge of the land and nature. Clearly, this cultural heritage is a very important aspect of present day Greenland. The Greenlanders' interest in the heritage of the other cultures of Greenland differs somewhat and depends very much on regional patterns, i.e. living in proximity to or having some verydat practical overlap with heritage sites of former cultures. Overall, and not unlike in most other countries, cultural heritage is often mobilized as unnuanced and idealized idioms by politician or policy makers to invoke certain sentiments in the population that will support their arguments in the present. However, there is also many other more positive examples, where understandings and praise of cultural heritage is used as powerful arguments in nation and identity building.

Greenland has the highest known suicide rate in the world. According to some specialists, this problem can be related to the “anomie” of Inuit culture? According to you, can archaeology and the promotion of cultural heritage bring about a change?

Hmm, difficult question. We can certainly help bring about a certain awareness and proudness about peoples cultural origins and their heritage, which may on a more personal level may help people feel more grounded in their world and connected to the past and present. There are several studies that show how cultural heritage can have a positive effect on public health and welfare. Other than that, I don't what role cultural heritage plays or can play in trends in the suicide rate.

[Author's note : In order to learn more about high Greenlander suicide, an article of high interest is available on the link: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/04/21/474847921/the-arctic-suicides-its-not-the-dark-that-kills-you]

Sources :

sciencenordic.com
unesco.org
universalis.fr
remains.eu (Christian Koch Madsen and these colleagues work on this project)

REMAINS project - REsearch and Management of Archaeological sites IN a changing environment and Society - has for aims to advance the basic understanding of how climate change influence the preservation of archaeological sites and organic artefacts ; to develop research based cultural resource management tools for locating sites at risk ; and to develop strategies for dealing with threatened sites in Greenland  - read more : http://remains.eu/about%20remains.html.

Excavation and installation of monitoring equipment at a Norse inland farm in the Nuuk fjord region.

Excavation and installation of monitoring equipment at a Norse inland farm in the Nuuk fjord region.
Photo: C.K. Madsen 2012

Drones are the newest archaeological standard equipment in heritage site monitoring programs.

Drones are the newest archaeological standard equipment in heritage site monitoring programs.
Photo: Roberto Fortuna 2016

A well preserved Thule culture midden is being investigated during the REMAINS of Greenland project. Local students are involved in the project to train them to be the heritage managers of the future.

A well preserved Thule culture midden is being investigated during the REMAINS of Greenland  project. Local students are involved in the project to train them to be the heritage managers of the future.
Photo: Roberto Fortuna 2016

In the REMAINS of Greenland monitoring equipment is installed at various types of heritage sites to allow us to assess the causes, processes and rapidity of climate related site degradation.

In the REMAINS of Greenland monitoring equipment is installed at various types of heritage sites to allow us to assess the causes, processes and rapidity of climate related site degradation.
Photo: Roberto Fortuna
Photo: Roberto Fortuna

Greenlandic students surveying some of the archaeological features which in Greenland are most often plainly visible on the surface of the ground.

Greenlandic students surveying some of the archaeological features which in Greenland are most often plainly visible on the surface of the ground.
Photo: C.K. Madsen 2016

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