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Erosion threatens Alaskan archaeological sites

Accelerated erosion is threatening to eradicate archaeological sites along Alaska’s coast.

The boat pictured on the cover of this newspaper sat on a bluff overlooking the Beaufort Sea when it was photographed in the summer of 2008. It’s almost certainly turned to driftwood and dust by now, swept away by waves after the bluff collapsed beneath it.

Scientists from the University of Colorado took photographs of the boat while on a geography expedition of Alaska’s Arctic shoreline. The scientists weren’t looking for artifacts of twentieth-century whaling crews. They were geographers doing a simple but high-tech and detailed GPS survey of the coast. They were gathering data that could be added to climate change computer models or used to help with coastline construction in the Arctic.

During an expedition in 2007, two boats, some small dugout buildings (possibly freezers or a work sheds) and a few above-ground summer huts were at the site, geographer Irina Overeem writes in an email from Colorado. “The two boats were closer to shore on the bluff. Over the summer of 2008 one boat disappeared into the Beaufort Sea. We visited the site in early August [of 2009] and I am speculating the other boat is now lost as well,” Overeem says. The Colorado team has measured coastal erosion near the old whaling site for three years. Overeem says the area loses ground as fast as 30 meters per year, and consistently around 15 meters per year.

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