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: