Friday, May 30, 2014

Cultural heritage in Greenland - What you may not know

That rather overused phrase 'the things we know we don't know, as against the things we don't know we don't know' came into sharp focus this last week for me at the ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee Conference in Copenhagen. As President of IPHC, I had conceived of the idea of getting together scientists and polar heritage specialists under the title The Future of Polar Heritage: Environmental challenges in the face of climate change,  in the hope that each could help inform the other. The National Museum of Denmark kindly agreed to host the conference and we looped in the Polar Archaeology Network to join the party.

All was promising well, when the National Museum suggested we also link the
Greenland National Museum as co hosts, principally because our contacts at the Museum were undertaking research in Greenland. We said yes, they said yes, and things were looking even more interesting.  But I had no idea what a revelation the Greenlanders involvement was going to bring.

Firstly, let me run through what I (mostly) didn't know about Greenland. It's a vast country almost the same size as India, but populated by only 56,000 hardy souls (ever met a Greenlander?) half of whom live in the capital Nuuk. That makes it the least populated country on earth by a margin of ten times over its nearest rival (the Falklands). A former colony of Denmark it is now semi-autonomous with an economy that exists off fishing, tourism and increasingly mining royalties. Despite its small size it still manages to run a National Museum and support paid staff in no less than 17 regional museums.

What is fascinating about its history is how climate change has caused successive waves of occupation and abandonment. There was prehistoric occupation until abandonment c. 500 BC. Then Norse immigrants settled in Southern Greenland around  AD 985 and managed to create a farming community during the Medieval Warm Period, but vanished after c. 500 years of existence probably due to  sea level rises, and an increase in sea ice and storm activity. Occupation then began again in the late nineteenth century initially with trapper activity followed by military installations and weather stations in the Second World War, post war mining activity and Cold War Arctic bases.

Now this rich heritage is under considerable threat once again from climate change. Global warming is happening 2.4 times faster in the region due to the albedo effect, a measure of reflectivity of the sun rays, and with that the permafrost is melting at an alarming rate. This combined with coastal erosion caused by increased storm activity and reduction in sea ice (which normally protects the coast from damage) is causing the accelerated destruction of heritage sites, the majority of which are on the coast. A compounding problem is that there at least 1700 sites which are known about that have never been surveyed, which suggests that there are many more that will be lost before they are ever discovered in the first place.

All rather depressing, as it is difficult to see where the resources are going to come from to do much about capturing this rich history, but at least knowing about it is a starting  point.

Coincidentally, I am writing this whilst directly above this extraordinary country en route to the American Institute for Conservation Conference in San Francisco, where I am giving a paper on the complex  issue of environmental standards in museums. More on the latter soon.

And my final bit of unknown (but now known) information is 'isostatic rebound', a phenomenon particularly found in Greenland. This is the process by which the earth's crust literally rebounds when the weight of ice is taken off it, often by many metres, when it has had some kilometres of ice on top of it melt away. Great stuff!