Climate change reveals unique artifacts in melting ice sheets

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One day, over 3000 years ago, someone lost a shoe in the place we now call Langfonne in the Jotunheimen mountains. The shoe is 28 cm long, which roughly corresponds to a modern size 36 or 37. The owner probably considered the shoe to be permanently lost, but on September 17, 2007, it was found, virtually intact.

Around 2000 BCE, a red-winged thrush died at Skirådalskollen in the Dovrefjell mountain range. His little body was quickly buried under a sheet of ice. Reappearing 4,000 years later, his internal organs are still intact.

In recent years, hundreds of such discoveries have been made in patches of ice, revealing traces of hunting, trapping, trafficking, animal and plant life – small, frozen moments from the past.

Exceptional discoveries every year

Norway has a soil that is still quite acidic, which means that organic matter from the past is poorly retained in the soil. Glaciers often displace – and crush – what they hide below the surface. Ice sheets, on the other hand, are relatively stable and therefore create exceptional conditions for the preservation of organic matter.

“Items and remains of animals and human activity have been discovered that we didn’t even know existed. They include everything from harness and clothing to arrows with shell tips, wooden shafts and feathers. Not a year goes by without startling discoveries that shift the boundaries of our understanding,” says Birgitte Skar, archaeologist and associate professor at the NTNU University Museum (the Norwegian University of Science and Technology). She is one of the researchers behind a new report (in Norwegian with an English summary) summarizing the state of knowledge of glacier archeology in Norway.

The report describes a variety of fabulous findings but also paints a grim picture.

Only a few ice patches with potential finds have been systematically studied over time, and they have barely been studied in northern Norway.

Short-term funding results in a lack of continuity in monitoring and securing ice patch artifacts. Some research has been done on the findings, but it barely scratches the surface. All the while, all this knowledge is melting away at record speed.

The most recent surveys by the Norwegian Directorate of Water Resources and Energy (NVE) show that 364 square kilometers of Norwegian snow patches and glaciers have melted since 2006.

The monitoring program is late

“A survey based on satellite images taken in 2020 shows that more than 40% of the 10 selected ice slabs with known finds have melted. These numbers suggest a significant threat to the preservation of ice finds, let alone ice as climate archives,” says Skar.

“Now is the time to establish a national monitoring program using remote sensing and to systematically secure archaeological finds and biological remains from ice patches. We should also use this program to collect glaciological data from different parts of the country, because ice sheets can provide detailed data on how the climate has changed over the past 7,500 years,” she said.

Unimaginable possibilities

The oldest find to emerge from the ice in Norway is a 6,100-year-old spire. Like the shoe, it was also found at Langfonne in the Jotunheimen mountain range.

Finds from here and several other places indicate that these areas were continuously used as hunting grounds for as long as the ice was there. This means that they offer an unrivaled source of archaeological information.

“We are starting to assess whether the ice in some places could have survived the warm period that followed the last ice age, which would mean that the bottom layer of the ice could be remnants of the ice sheet from this period. This possibility provides unprecedented opportunities to trace the history and climate activity of these hunting grounds even further back in time,” says Skar.

“We must remember that the oldest population group in Norway descended from reindeer hunters who hunted in northern Europe and southern Scandinavia near the edge of the ice cap, at the end of the period In other words, these are people who would have known how to hunt large cloven-hoofed animals and would have understood the behaviors of animals,” adds Skar.

Reindeer seek patches of ice during hot, muddy summers, and the Sami people have also used these areas for a variety of purposes, including branding calves, milking and separating animals. However, the Sami’s use of inland ice has been little studied.

“Sami uses would likely expand the known range of uses and significance of snow patches. Information from these tradition bearers is urgently needed,” says Skar.

Mummified birds and animals

Human activity over the millennia isn’t the only story revealed by the discoveries of ice patches. Animal and plant remains also provide new insights into the ice as an ecosystem, such as reindeer bones from 4,200 years ago that still contain intact bone marrow, as well as several mammals and birds. whole mummified.

According to Jørgen Rosvold, the finds are often very well preserved and can provide genetic information about several very old species. They can show how species have responded to climate change and human disturbances in the past.

Rosvold was also involved in the report. He is a biologist and deputy research director at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA). He explains that ice is one of the least studied and least understood ecosystems in the world, so we know very little about ice as a habitat.

“Our findings show that the ice in the mountains provided important habitats for many mountain species for thousands of years down to the present day. Fauna finds also provide baseline information for archaeological finds, e.g. example by showing what species people might have hunted on the patches of snow,” says Rosvold.

“We used to think of ice as desolate and lifeless and therefore not very important. This is changing now, but it is urgent. Large amounts of unique material are melting and disappearing forever. Discoveries can provide insights important on the history of people and nature,” he said.

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