Climate change swallows shores and history of Herschel Island

The waves lapping the shores of Herschel Island are slowly creeping inland because of global warming, says the Yukon’s manager of historic…

The waves lapping the shores of Herschel Island are slowly creeping inland because of global warming, says the Yukon’s manager of historic sites.

One of Heritage Canada’s “10 most endangered places 2007,” the 116-square-kilometre island and its historic buildings are under constant threat because of rising sea levels, says Doug Olynyk.

“The forces of nature continue to ravage the island,” Olynyk said.

He recounted the history, and conjured several possible futures for Herschel Island before a crowd of about 30 at the MacBride Museum on February 27.

Occupied by humans for at least 1,000 years, Herschel Island, located about five kilometres off the coast in the Beaufort Sea, has a long and varied history.

European explorer Sir John Franklin landed on the island in 1826 and discovered several Inuvialuit settlements.

Thereafter, the island was used as a hunting, fishing and whaling base.

Over time, residents erected buildings and the RCMP established a presence on the island.

Roughly 100 burial sites are still visible.

Fragile remnants of the historical and prehistoric record are under threat due to a number of climate factors, said Olynyk.

In the last 50 years, the average temperature in the North has increased about 3 degrees Celsius; precipitation levels have increased and sea ice is diminishing faster than ever.

The encroaching water combined with shore degradation and melting permafrost is battering the old settlements, said Olynyk.

One building was moved five kilometres inland in 2003, and again, with two other buildings, in 2004 but not before they came close to destruction.

“The buildings were only saved by a fortunate change in wind,” said Olynyk.

Caskets in the island’s crumbling graveyards are being pushed out of the ground.

Unless more protection — meaning more money and government support — is provided to mitigate the effects of climate change, the survival of Herschel Island’s historic sites is precarious, said Olynyk.

The island was included in the United Nation’s World Heritage Convention report on Case Studies on Climate Change and World Heritage and is on the World Monument Fund’s 2008 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world.

Olynyk contributed his expertise to each of these initiatives.

Those designations can bring money and attention to the island’s problems, he said.

But convincing governments to act is a challenge, he added.

No coast city in the world has really come to grips with climate change, said Olynyk.

Canada hasn’t yet understood the challenge of protecting the Arctic either, he added.

“We’re way behind for a northern nation — we love the Arctic, but ignore it,” he said.

“There are ways to use history and traditional knowledge to adapt to the future climate change challenges.”

The island itself probably won’t disappear for another 2,000 years at the current rate of degradation, but the small peninsula making up Pauline Cove where most of the buildings are located could succumb to the soft waves within 50 years.

Another 100 years and the cove will be completely gone, based on an estimate of a 1.2-metre rise in water levels surrounding the island.

While tourists do visit the territorial park, they do so only in small numbers.

However, as global warming opens up more northern sea routes, the area could see more cruise ships and transport ships stopping on the island’s shore, said Olynyk.

It would also make resource extraction in the area easier.

“Transportation and tourism companies will soon visit the Arctic like never before,” he said.

Another lecture at 7 p.m. in the MacBride Museum tonight will discuss the effect of tourism on First Nation and Northwest Coast people in the region.

Contact Jeremy Warren at:

Just Posted

The Yukon has confirmed 33 active COVID-19 cases on June 15. (file photo)
A new study has discovered beaver castoreum on a 6,000-year-old Yukon atlatl-throwing dart. Photo courtesy of Yukon Government.
Beaver casotreum residue found on 6,000-year-old atlatl throwing dart

The discovery of beaver castoreum on a throwing dart could be the first instance where its use has been identified in an ancient archaeological context

The Yukon’s current outbreak of COVID-19 is driven by close contact between people at gatherings, such as graduation parties. (Black Press file)
Yukon logs 21 active cases as COVID-19 spreads through graduation parties

Anyone who attended a graduation party is being asked to monitor themselves for symptoms.

Yukon RCMP and other emergency responders were on the scene of a collision at Robert Service Way and the Alaska Highway on June 12. (Black Press file)
June 12 collision sends several to hospital

The intersection at Robert Service Way and the Alaska Highway was closed… Continue reading

The sun sets over Iqaluit on Oct. 26, 2020. Nunavut’s chief public health officer says two COVID-19 cases at Iqaluit’s middle school came from household transmission and the risk to other students is low. (Emma Tranter/Canadian Press)
Iqaluit school’s contacts and classmates cleared after two COVID-19 cases

With an outbreak ongoing in Iqaluit, the Aqsarniit middle school has split students into two groups

An extended range impact weapon is a “less lethal” option that fires sponge or silicon-tipped rounds, according to RCMP. (File photo)
Whitehorse RCMP under investigation for use of “less lethal” projectile weapon during arrest

Police used the weapon to subdue a hatchet-wielding woman on June 4

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino holds a press conference in Ottawa on Nov. 12, 2020. The federal government is announcing that Indigenous people can now apply to reclaim their names on passports and other government documents.
Indigenous people can now reclaim traditional names on their passports and other ID

The move comes in response to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015

Teslin Lake is one of two bodies of water the Yukon Government has place on flood watch. (Google Maps Image)
Flood watch issued for Teslin Lake, Yukon River at Carmacks

The bodies of water may soon burst their banks due to melting snow and rainfall

Kluane Adamek, AFN Yukon’s regional chief, has signalled a postponement to a graduation ceremony scheduled for today due to COVID-19. She is seen here in her Whitehorse office on March 17. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
AFN Yukon’s post-secondary grad celebration postponed

The event scheduled for June 14 will be rescheduled when deemed safe

(Alexandra Newbould/Canadian Press)
In this artist’s sketch, Nathaniel Veltman makes a video court appearance in London, Ont., on June 10, as Justice of the Peace Robert Seneshen (top left) and lawyer Alayna Jay look on.
Terror charges laid against man accused in London attack against Muslim family

Liam Casey Canadian Press A vehicle attack against a Muslim family in… Continue reading

Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, poses for a portrait in the boardroom outside his office in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Sept. 30, 2020. (Emma Tranter/Canadian Press)
Two cases of COVID-19 at Iqaluit school, 9 active in Nunavut

Nunavut’s chief public health officer says two COVID-19 cases at Iqaluit’s middle… Continue reading

The Village of Carmacks has received federal funding for an updated asset management plan. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Federal funding coming to Carmacks

The program is aimed at helping municipalities improve planning and decision-making around infrastructure

Most Read