Climate Change Uncovers Our Past

When we think about climate change, we usually picture extreme temperatures, mega-storms, and rising seas disrupting our collective future.

But climate change is also erasing our past.

At our poles, melting ice is exposing and washing out new archeological discoveries. In the world’s arid regions, severe sandstorms are unearthing and eroding buried treasures. And on our coasts, rainstorms are revealing ancient reserves and wiping them out, often before scientists can study them.

Ironically, some of these resources may hold critical lessons about how past civilizations survived earlier climate change events. For instance, Bolivia is solving its climate change-flooding problem by building an irrigation system it learned about from a pre-Inca archeological dig.

In an attempt to capture ancient wisdom before it is lost, the Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) started a new citizen science project two years ago called CITiZAN, (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archeological Network). The project gives volunteers the opportunity to do real archeological research, and it has already deployed more than 500 citizen scientists to study and document archeological sites along England’s 6,500 miles of sinuous coast.

“In the winter of 2013, new coastal heritage was appearing in the news almost daily as the storms eroded stretches of coastline exposing new archeological features,” said CITiZAN Project Officer Stephanie Ostrich.

CITiZAN archaeologist Megan Clements (center) surveys and records an early Bronze Age trackway with local volunteers on the beach at Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. Credit: CITiZAN
CITiZAN archaeologist Megan Clements (center) surveys and records an early Bronze Age trackway with local volunteers on the beach at Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. Credit: CITiZAN

These treasures included everything from intertidal shipwrecks, Roman buildings, and ancient salt-working sites to lost medieval ports, submerged forests, and relics from both World Wars. Thanks to financial support from the Heritage Lottery FundNational Trust, and The Crown Estate, dog walkers, birdwatchers, and amateur archeologists with CITiZAN are now helping professional scientists identify and document newly uncovered finds in their local communities, she said.

There are many ways volunteers can get involved. They can attend a one-day workshop on how to gather evidence from archived records. They can complete a two-day training on how to collect evidence in the field, which includes how to conduct onsite surveys, take measurements, and record information by hand and by using photos. And they can attend lectures on England’s coastal heritage and join guided walks to learn about local coastal history.

Citizen scientists in the project get to interact with like-minded explorers and also meet with professional CITiZAN archeologists, who are on-call to provide support and advice and to help out with large-scale work.

In addition to being fun, the work volunteers do directly contributes new science to the field of archeology. CITiZAN trainers share key research questions with volunteers before each fieldwork training session, which are compatible with local, regional, and national archeology frameworks.

Volunteers document their findings on an interactive coastal map available for anyone to view on the CITiZAN website. They are also encouraged to do preliminary analysis and share their research through blogs, and publish results in regional or national fieldwork roundups.

In addition, collected data and reports are deposited with the Archeology Data Service and the digital archeology repository for the UK, and also feeds back into the local Historic Environment Record offices and Historic England and national Trust datasets.

One of the project’s most popular archeological finds to date is a Bronze Age trackway in the ancient submerged landscape of Cleethropes, Northeast Lincolnshire, Ostrich said. Evidence found around the track way shows that the area was once a forest, possibly with a very different climate from today.

Such discoveries may eventually allow citizen scientists with CITiZAN to rediscover ways to adapt to the changing climate of today.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Categories: Archeology, Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Ecology & Environment, Ocean & Water, Project Profile

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About the Author

Kristin Butler

Kristin Butler

Kristin is a freelance journalist and Outreach and Communications Director for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. She holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from Whitman College and an M.S. in Mass Communications from San Jose State University. Kristin has worked as an environmental reporter for The Argus newspaper and was a monthly contributor to Bay Area BusinessWoman News. She's also directed communications and fundraising initiatives for a number of environmental and youth serving organizations, including Earthjustice and Girls Inc.