'Some caskets are tumbling with the slumping soil and are being broken into pieces'

Warmer weather destroying Arctic treasures


The Arctic's wonders may melt, sink or be blown away before the world has a chance to appreciate them.

Rising temperatures, thawing glaciers, higher sea levels, soggy permafrost and erosion are all eating away at the Arctic's most valuable sites, says a United Nations report on climate change's impact on World Heritage Sites.

Over the past 100 years, the head of the huge glacier in Ilulissat, Greenland has retreated more than 30 kilometres from its former location on the fiord – a movement only expected to intensify in the future as Greenland's temperatures rise.

And Yukon's Qikiqtaruk or Herschel Island, a former whaling outpost, is collapsing into the Beaufort Sea. As the island's shoreline retreats under high winds and seas, and permafrost gives way, and archeological sites, historic houses and graveyards disappear.

"Some caskets are tumbling with the slumping soil and are being broken into pieces and pushed out," says the UN report.

This deterioration on this site, which is not even listed yet as a World Heritage Site, is alarming to the UN's educational, scientific and cultural organization, known as UNESCO. That's because sites like Herschel Island may vanish before they can even make it on to the coveted list.

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

Sites selected by UNESCO must meet daunting criteria, such as representing "a masterpiece of human creative genius" or "major stages of earth's history."

Admittance to the World Heritage List brings the promise of promotion and protection to each selected site, and guaranteed government money and tourists. There are 830 World Heritage Sites. None are in Nunavut.

Nunavut's sole contender for world heritage site status is Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island. Quttinirpaaq has glaciers, towering mountains, muskox, ancient campsites and Fort Conger, which served as a research station for the first International Polar Year scientists and later as a camp for polar explorer Robert E. Peary.

But climate change may hurt some sites on the World Heritage List, UNESCO experts warn.

UNESCO's Apr. 10 report, "Case Studies on Climate Change and World Heritage," looks at 26 examples of sites threatened by melting glaciers, sea temperature changes, animal migration, permafrost melting and coastal erosion.

Climate change is already changing Quttinirpaaq. In 2004, Parks Canada officials worked with Inuit students and the Nunavut government to excavate two Thule sod houses, and other artifacts left along the Ruggles River near Lake Hazen. Rising water levels were already eroding this site.

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Studies within the park show temperatures are rising and winters are becoming shorter. Yet Parks Canada says no one was prepared for the cracking and breakage of a 443-square-kilometre chunk of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in 2002. Loss of the ice shelf resulted in drainage of a freshwater lake, home to unusual micro-organisms.

When the British Arctic Expedition travelled there in 1875 and Peary explored the area in 1907, this shelf of land-fast ice was still intact, but, by 1982, 90 per cent of the shelf had been lost.

By "providing compelling evidence of change," researchers from Université Laval say the collapse of Ward Hunt Ice Shelf may mark the beginning of a period of rapid global warming.

When Heritage Canada first announced its tentative list for the World Heritage Site listing, eight places in Nunavut were selected: Auyuittuq National Park, the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island, the North Magnetic Pole, Northern Bathurst Island National Park Reserve, Northwest Passage, Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Quttinirpaaq National Park and Sirmilik National Park.

But only Quttinirpaaq made the cut in 2004 as one of 11 Canadian sites to be submitted for World Heritage Site status over the next 10 years.

Although the fossil forest has been extensively studied in the past, the site didn't make it on to the final list because of "a lack of data," a Parks Canada report says.

Meanwhile, climate change continues to ravage this swath of 45-million-year-old forest, a remnant of a much warmer past in the High Arctic.

The mummified fossils of a large tropical forest still stretch across Axel Heiberg's Geodetic Hills. But these fossils, which erosion has already brought to the surface, are subject to damage from severe winds and melting permafrost.

The fossils are also at risk from souvenir-hunting visitors from the nearby Eureka base and cruise ships, who may turn up in greater numbers as the ice-free navigation season lengthens. Any disturbance paves the way for more damaging erosion of the fossil forest from violent wind storms that blow exposed fossils away.

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