The following case study is part of a forthcoming NPS handbook on climate change entitled “Climate Change and Cultural Resources: Impact Assessments and Case Studies.”  The original author is Caitlin Smith.

melting ice patch at Wrangell-St. Elias NP and PRES NPS photo

Melting ice patch at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, NPS photo

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve contains a wealth of natural and cultural resources, including significant groupings of Athabascan prehistoric and historic archeological sites. They include several villages, camps, and hunting sites used by the Athabascan people, plus remains of other cultures such as the Tlin­git and Eyak peoples, and the Chugach Eskimos. Wrangell-St. Elias is also home to many historic ruins and structural remnants of early exploration, mining, and trans­portation in Alaska. In fact, the park and preserve are of such natural and cultural significance that, in 1978, the United Nations recognized Wrangell-St.Elias as part of an international World Heritage Site in conjunction with its Yukon neighbor, Kluance National Park in Canada ( 2007). Now, under the effects of a warming cli­mate, the prehistoric landscape of Wrangell-St. Elias is gaining renewed importance as well preserved hunting artifacts of ancient Alaskans begin to melt out of thawing ice patches.

The largest volumes of archeological collections have been discovered at 18 large ice patches in the southern Yukon establishing an impressive context for Alaskan ice patch archeology (Hare et al. 2004). Given the national and international significance of Wrangell-St.Elias, the pronounced impacts of climate change affecting Alaska are resulting in serious breakthroughs and consequences for cultural resource manage­ment in the park and preserve. Melting ice reveals rare finds that broaden our knowl­edge of high latitude human adaptation; however, once artifacts are released from their frozen contexts, they begin to decay rapidly, putting them at risk to complete loss within a matter of years.

Climate changes to Wrangell-St. Elias are expected to include increases in mean, minimum, maximum annual temperatures, a longer growing season, glacial thinning, retreat, and runoff, as well as sea level rise, changes in precipitation patterns, and shift­ing plant composition and distributions (Jezierski, Loehman, and Schramm 2010, 7-8). For interior portions of Central Alaska, scientists anticipate more precipitation will be offset by warmer temperatures resulting in a generally drier environment. In contrast, scientists anticipate a warmer, wetter climate in the coastal areas of Wrangell-St. Elias (MacCluskie and Wesser 2010, 1).

As a result of this warming trend, “ice patches” within the park and preserve have begun to melt, exposing rare archeological materials previously unknown to research­ers. Ice patches form by accumulated layers of drifting snow that persist though sum­mers for thousands of years. Caribou used ice patches in the summer as refuge from heat and insects, and as a supply of fresh water. Archeological evidence indicates that people were attracted to these microenvironments to hunt caribou and freeze meat on the ice (Hare et al. 2004). These hunters left behind their weapons, clothing, and tools which became buried in the snow that then became ice, preserving these artifacts for thousands of years (Dixon et al. 2010).

Surveys conducted in 2001 and 2003 identified five prehistoric sites containing arti­facts ranging in age from 370 to 2880 radiocarbon years before present (B.P.), and six historic sites dating to the Chisana gold rush, circa 1913 AD (Dixon et al. 2005, Dixon et al. 2010). Prehistoric organic artifacts including prehistoric bows and arrows, spears, hunting tools, birch baskets, clothing, and human remains were discovered in melting ice patches throughout the park and preserve. Well-preserved organic remains are rarely found in archeological sites, particularly sites in Interior Alaska. Yet remains uncovered at Wrangell-St.Elias are exceptionally intact. Without the organic artifacts recovered from ice patches, there would be little evidence of the rich material culture in these high latitude environments.

Nine historic sites, most dating to the Chisana gold rush (circa 1913 AD), were also discovered during the survey. Horse hoof trimmings and horseshoe nails found at a site reveal evidence of a horse being shod on the glacier. Metal can fragments and other metal objects, including a frying pan and a bucket and a variety of cut wood, also appeared from the melting ice. Even the remains of an entire “roadhouse” that provisioned and sheltered travelers crossing the glacier during the 1913 gold rush were discovered during the excavation (Dixon et al. 2010, 28).

If this warming trend continues, it is likely that archeological and paleontological remains will continue to be exposed over the next few decades, presenting opportunities and challenges to archeologists and park cultural resource managers. Ice patch archeology is a newly recognized aspect of the archeological record. Given the vast number of ice patches in Alaska and the warming climate, archeologists are racing to inventory sites before these precious cultural resources decay and disappear forever.

Hubbard glacier

Hubbard Glacier at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, NPS photo

Sources Cited:
1.  Dixon, E. James, Craig M. Lee, William F. Manley, Ruth Ann Warden, and William D. Harrison, “The Frozen Past of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve” p.25-29.
2.  Dixon, E. J., W. F. Manley, and C.M. Lee. 2005 The Emerging Archaeology of Glaciers and Ice Patches: Examples from Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. American Antiquity 70(1):129-143.
3.  Hare, Gregory P., Sheila Greer, Ruth Gotthardt, Richard Farnell, Vandy Bowyer, Charles Schweger, and Diane Strand, Ethnographic and Archeaological Investigations of Alpine Ice Patches in Southwest Yukon, Canada, Arctic, vol. 57, no. 3, September 2004, p. 260-272.
4.  Jezierski, Caroline, Rachel Loehman, and Amanda Schramm, Understanding the science of climate change: Talking points -impacts to Alaska Boreal and Arctic. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/NRR—2010/224. National Park Service: 2010, Fort Collins, Colorado.
5.  MacCluskie, Maggie and Sara Wesser, NPS Central Alaska Network Inventory and Monitoring Program Climate Change Resource Brief, 2010, p.1-2.
6., Wrangell St.-Elias National Park and Preserve, History and Culture/Places/Archeology in Wrangell St.-Elias, last modified February 7, 2007,