This week: climate change

Ice core extracted at Talos Dome showing an ash layer corresponding to the Toba supervolcano eruption in Indonesia about 75,000 years ago. Image: Wikimedia Commons: Dargaud.

Archaeologists have been among those paying close attention this week as delegates have gathered in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26.

Few would now disagree that man-made global warming is having a devastating effect around the world. This year alone has seen wildfires raging out of control in many places, from Siberia and Australia to California and Greece. There have been devastating floods in Europe and China, record temperatures in Russia, and an unprecedented heatwave in traditionally cool areas of the north-western United States and Canada.

For the archaeological community, the effects of such dramatic shifts in the global environment have been many and varied, and have taken different shape in different parts of the world. In far-northern areas, for example, one side-effect has been that melting glaciers and thawing permafrost have revealed ancient artefacts that for millennia had remained perfectly preserved in ice. These discoveries have undoubtedly provided valuable clues about the lives of our ancestors – but any such potential benefits must be set against the widespread risk of loss and decay to which sudden uncontrolled exposure of valuable relics to warmer temperatures inevitably gives rise.

This week on The Past, we are taking a timely look at the complex links between archaeology and climate change – all of which provide further confirmation that temperature variations of just a few degrees have the ability dramatically to impact human lives.

Some of these effects are being witnessed close to home. In the new issue of Current Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, we discover how accelerating erosion caused by the climate emergency is attacking our coastal heritage. On Mersea Island, in Essex, we join the community-based team at CITiZAN (Coastal & Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network), who are working to record more than 6,000 miles of archaeology along England’s coasts that is at threat from weather, waves and human action.

We’ve also been delving into the archives in search of more evidence of climate change: we travelled to the Swiss-Italian Alps to see how a groundbreaking study of an ice core is revealing pollution and environmental conditions over thousands of years, shedding new light on European history; we visited Spitalfields to see how a tropical volcano devastated Medieval London in 1258; and we headed to Scotland to understand how waves are revealing and destroying coastal sites there too at an alarming rate.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of disasters – from extinction events to climate-related catastrophes. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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