Climate breakdown sees melting ice reveal 3,000-year-old shoe and ‘items we don’t even know exist’
In just over 15 years, climate degradation was responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of square kilometers of ancient Norwegian glaciers and ice corrective measures, according to the latest estimates.
A worrying symptom of global warming, the retreat of this mountainous ice – often in remote and seemingly desolate places – has also led to some discoveries said to “shift the boundaries of our understanding” of a long-forgotten world.
The laced garment, which is around 27cm long, was discovered on the Langfonne Ice Patch in the Jotunheimen Mountains in 2007, which is also home to the oldest find to date – a spire dating back 6,100 years.
According to the scientists, such discoveries not only reveal traces of prehistoric human activities such as hunting and trapping, but also provide new insights into animal and plant life – and potentially even climate history.
“Objects and remains of animals and human activities have been discovered that we didn’t even know existed,” said Birgitte Skar, archaeologist and associate professor at the University Museum at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“They include everything from horse gear and clothing to arrows with shell tips, wooden shafts and feathers. Not a year passes without surprising discoveries that push the limits of our understanding.
In a new report, Prof Skar and his colleagues detail many of these finds, including several mummified whole mammals, reindeer bones from 4,200 years ago still containing intact marrow and a red-winged thrush whose internal organs remained intact after 4,000 years in the ice. in the Dovrefjell mountain range.
While glaciers generally move and crush ancient organic materials contained in Norway’s acidic soil, more stationary patches of ice have been shown to provide significantly better conditions for preservation.
But like the ice that had long preserved them, scientists warn that these precious discoveries are also at risk of being lost forever.
Only a few ice patches with potential finds have been systematically studied over time, and those in northern Norway have barely been studied.
Short-term funding has resulted in a lack of continuity in monitoring and securing ice patch artifacts, while research that has been done on existing finds barely scratches the surface, scientists warn.
All the while, this potential knowledge is melting at record speed.
A survey based on satellite images captured in 2020 showed that out of 10 selected patches of ice with known finds, more than 40% had melted, according to Professor Skar, who described this as “a significant threat to the preservation of discoveries of ice, not to mention ice as a climatic archive”.
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She is pushing for the creation of a national monitoring program that uses remote sensing to systematically secure archaeological finds and biological remains from ice patches, and which could also be used to collect glaciological data, “since ice patches can provide detailed data on how the climate has changed over the past 7,500 years.”
Indeed, Professor Skar and his colleagues are beginning to wonder if some of the ice might have survived since the last Ice Age – a possibility that she says “offers unprecedented opportunities to trace the climatic history and activity on these hunting grounds even further back in time.”
Norway’s oldest population group descends from reindeer hunters, who hunted near the edge of the ice cap in northern Europe and southern Scandinavia at the end of the Ice Age, Prof Skar said .
The Sami population – a people whose heritage spans thousands of years and who are still involved in reindeer herding to this day – also used these ice patch areas for various purposes, such as calf branding and milking, but their practices have changed. little studied by researchers.
Knowing more about the Sami uses for these ice patches would likely shed more light on the significance of these areas, she suggested, saying, “There is an urgent need to get information from these tradition bearers.”
Ice is one of the least studied and least understood ecosystems in the world, according to Jørgen Rosvold, a biologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research who has also been involved in the report.
Dr Rosvold believes discoveries of animal and plant remains in Norwegian ice sheets can show how species have responded to climate change and human disturbance in the past.
“Our findings show that ice in mountains has provided important habitats for many mountain species for thousands of years to the present day,” he said.
“We used to think of ice as desolate and lifeless and therefore not very important. This is changing now, but it is urgent. Large amounts of unique material are melting and disappearing forever.