Doomsday clock set for Herschel Island

You might want to book that sojourn you’ve been planning to the whaling outpost ruins on Herschel Island.

You might want to book that sojourn you’ve been planning to the whaling outpost ruins on Herschel Island.

It’s not going to be there forever.

The once Thule-occupied island just five kilometres off Yukon’s north coast is going to be swallowed by rising oceans.

As a result, this month it was placed on a worldwide list of endangered sites.

On June 6th the New York-based World Monuments Fund announced its 100 most-endangered cultural heritage sites, which include an old synagogue in the middle of Argentina, 10,000-year-old rock art on Australia’s northwest coast and America’s famed Route 66.

While most monuments are threatened by development or abandonment, Herschel Island is being torn apart by stronger natural forces.

“This is the first time that the list has named climate change as a threat, and the site of Herschel Island is perhaps the most threatened by climate change of all the sites we have,” said Michelle Berenford on behalf of the World Monuments Fund.

The funding organization sometimes gives money to a project or offers technical assistance with site restoration, but mostly acts as a publicity company for the sites on the bi-yearly watch list.

“If you are in the company of 100 other sites all over the world, from Machu Picchu to the Taj Mahal, which was on the list in the past, it really helps everyone who is advocating for a site to show the world the company that they’re keeping,” said Berenford.

Herschel Island boasts 12 historic structures on the spit at Pauline Cove dating from the bowhead whaling era that began in the 1890s.

These structures helped mark the establishment of Canadian sovereignty in the Western Arctic.

Prehistoric dwellings, now buried, can be found along the edge of the spit.

Each year 500 to 600 tourists also visit the island’s semi-subterranean ice houses and cemeteries. These too are washing away.

 “It’s in extremely dire straits because of the eroding coastline and rising sea levels, as well as melting permafrost and the storms because of that area’s dramatic warming over the last decade,” said Berenford.

Coffins have already been pushed out of the ground on the south-facing slopes behind the settlement area due to shifting ground pressures.

Some of the sheet-metal warehouse buildings closest to the sea have been moved back by Yukon Historical Sites staff, said restoration officer Brent Riley.

 “We don’t really anticipate having to move them any further this year,” he said.

Yukon Historical Sites has abandoned any plans to preserve the island in situ.

The sea level in the Beaufort region has risen 10 to 20 centimetres in the past century, and it is believed will easily rise another half-metre within the next century.

The new plan is a calculated retreat.

 “This summer we are going to be discussing plans for the future salvage of archeological resources that become eroded or displaced,” said Riley.

 “Their focus really has to be on documentation and planning for what will be lost and what can be saved, and to make sure that they record what is going to be lost so it’s not completely wiped off the face of the Earth, so the memory if it is at least somewhere,” said Berenford.

Herschel Island was designated a National Historic Event by the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and is now being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

The Yukon Historical Museum Association, which has collegial ties with the historic sites government office, nominated Herschel Island Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park to the World Monuments Fund.

Under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, the island became Yukon’s first territorial park in July, 1987.