Permafrost melting in Svalbard, Norway. Depicts Erosion.

Arctic Climate Change: Impacts, Solutions, and the Anthropological Perspective

Melting Permafrost in the Arctic

Permafrost is soil that remains frozen year-round and is located at the poles.  The thawing of permafrost is a prevalent issue due to increases in global temperatures. This thawing leads to reduced ground stability. These issues cause artifacts deep in the Earth to be disturbed, greatly affecting the preservation of archeological materials. As permafrost thaws, ice-wedges form. These wedges have the ability to push archeological materials upwards, meaning dating by stratigraphy is no longer a viable option. According to the article “Structural Properties of Syngenetic Ice-Rich Permafrost, as Revealed by Archaeological Investigation of the Yana Site Complex (Arctic East Siberia, Russia): Implications for Quaternary Science,” movement of materials is as great as 6 to 7 meters.

Permafrost melting in Svalbard, Norway. Depicts Erosion.
Credit: Jeff Vanuga


Thawed permafrost often freezes again once the temperature drops. This is an issue because the repeated cycle of freezing and thawing leads to erosion. Erosion causes the loss of archeological materials. This occurs when eroded soil carries artifacts out of the ground.  The loss of these items reduces our knowledge of the past. This is especially unfortunate for native communities who have a personal stake in continuing their traditions. Erosion also disrupts graves, and the loss of human remains is deeply disturbing.


Excavation is essential for the preservation of arctic archeological materials. Glacial archeology is a growing field. This increased demand is due to climate change. The scope of this work entails looking for artifacts exposed by melting mountain ice. Excavation is especially crucial during hotter months, as the increase in temperature leads to more ice melting.  Patches of snow and ice provide better conditions for preservation than glaciers. This is because glaciers move and change, damaging the remains inside. The cold arctic climate preserves organic material well, but problems arise when melting unearths these remains. The longer organic material remains in contact with oxygen and sunlight, the more it decomposes. The article, “On a Mountain High: Finding and Documenting Glacial Archaeological Sites During the Anthropocene,” discusses how increases in the amount of melting ice in 2006 led to more archeological finds. More sites will be uncovered as temperatures continue to rise.

Glacial archaeology site map, Norway
Credit: Lars Pilø

Preserving Knowledge of the Arctic

The key to preserving our understanding of past Arctic cultures is locating sites at risk of damage from changing climates. Glacial archeologists often use Geographic Information System (GIS) models to predict site locations, according to “Managing Frozen Heritage: Some Challenges and Responses.” Satellite images also aid in the discovery of at-risk sites. The most important tool is field survey by trained archeologists, however. It might be surprising to some that this older method is more valuable than new technology, but finding small artifacts is not possible from a bird’s eye view. This work requires careful survey and investigation. It is essential that glacial archeologists have adequate experience and become familiar with their site of study. Over time, glacial archeologists should be able to determine when the best times to excavate and survey are based on the amount of melted ice.


While there are many digital models of Arctic sites, the number of physical models is lacking. Physical models are superior to digital models when it comes to preservation. This is because it is unknown whether or not future generations will be able to access our digital records. Needing a computer limits the accessibility of digital models, and stable internet connection is a luxury, especially in rural areas. People should not be barred from learning about important Arctic locations just because they do not have internet access. This is especially true for Indigenous communities that have personal connections to these locations. Digital models can only be interacted with visually. Physical models can also be manipulated through touch. This allows for deeper connections to the location presented and a greater understanding. Digital model of the Pauline Cove Community house (left), Physical model of the Pauline Cove Community house (right)

Credit: Katayoon Etemad

Ötzi The Ice Man

Ötzi’s remains is arguably the most famous find in glacial archeology. Discovered in the melting ice of the Alps in 1991, he is remarkably well preserved. Archeologists found intact clothes and tools when they examined Ötzi. He wore clothes of goat and deer hide with a grass cape. He had bearskin shoes and a hat of the same material. For tools, he carried a copper axe, a flint dagger, and an unfinished bow. Ötzi also had a kit for starting fire and medicinal fungus. Bran from a primitive form of wheat is present in the digestive system of Ötzi. This is likely from the consumption of bread. Carbon 13 analysis shows that Ötzi had a diet of both meat and plants, with a greater reliance on plants. The case of Ötzi is a prime example of the remarkable preservation possible in cold climates.

Illustration of Otzi being shot with an arrow. He is depicted with the items found on his person.
Credit: Rudolf Farkas

Indigenous Arctic Communities

Of the four million people living in Arctic regions, 10% of the population is indigenous. Native inhabitants rely on this environment for traditional means of acquiring food. These include hunting, fishing, herding, and gathering. Access to food is vital for all, yet native Arctic residents’ food security is threatened. The impact of melting sea ice on the local ecosystems, and outside sources claiming ownership of traditionally native lands are the main sources of conflict. The loss of sea ice has made hunting for marine resources, such as seals, much more difficult. This increase in difficulty means that many families do not want to teach their children these traditional practices, as they are concerned for the safety of their children. The decrease in sea ice has also allowed for easier transversal for large ships, further disturbing sea life. Melting permafrost, leading to erosion, is a major threat to coastal infrastructure.


Five Indigenous communities on the coast of western Alaska concluded that they must migrate due to erosion and flooding. Due to these conditions, buildings and the safety of the community were threatened. In 2006, a report from the United States Government concluded that these communities could be underwater by as early as 2016. Current methods for treating erosion will not work fast enough, meaning that more communities will be facing forced migration in the future. While finding ways to stop the melting Arctic permafrost is a top concern, relocation of communities in immediate danger from climate change is more important.


Actions that threaten Indigenous lifeways are often met by protests from these communities. An example of this is the 2021 protests of the Mary River iron ore mine. The mine owners wanted to increase production, but Inuit community members were against this. The increase in mine ships made it harder to find whales and seals, and the protesters feared that a planned railroad would scare off caribou. The Nunavut Impact Review Board has rejected these expansion plans. The picture below comes from the Mary River mine protest.

Inuit community protesting building of a mine in the arctic. A sign reads "I want to eat my grandkids catch"
Credit: Kent Driscoll

Hurdles to Progress

According to the article, “A Systematic Overview of the Barriers to Building Climate Adaptation of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites in Polar Regions,” technological constraints are the most prominent barrier to preserving the arctic environment. A main technical issue is a lack of data. To understand the scope of Arctic climate change, researchers must collect proper data. Knowing what problems are at hand is the first step in finding solutions. Other issues include organization, finances, and education.  Many groups have taken on the challenge of combating climate change in the Arctic. Lack of communication is a major problem with organizing; thus, collaboration between these groups would allow for progress to increase exponentially. Addressing the need for more funding would be more successful if organizations worked together. Better education would help to increase awareness of the significance of the Arctic environment, sites, and unique cultures.

Logo for "Polar Bears International"
Polar Bears International is an organization whose main cause is protecting polar bears and sea ice.

Combating Arctic Climate Change

Northwest Greenland

The article “Adaptive Capacity to Manage Permafrost Degradation in Northwest Greenland” provides information on the extent of Arctic permafrost loss and ways to preserve the remaining permafrost. First, an increase in surveying is needed. Identifying areas at higher risk will be possible with collected data. Integrating the community in efforts is extremely important. Therefore, the researchers surveyed the Qeqertarsuaq locals. The survey asked residents how the changing environment has affected their daily lives. The people of Qeqertarsuaq expressed concerns about how the melting of Arctic permafrost affected housing, hunting, and the economy. The solutions proposed place great emphasis on community participation as well. Thus, locally focused efforts are key to breaking up the monumental task of managing Arctic climate change into manageable portions.

Houses of Qeqertarsuaq.
Credit: Jurga

Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Listening to Arctic Natives

In the United States, the government often works with Native community members on climate change issues. When governing bodies disregard the traditional knowledge of Indigenous people, problems arise. This occurs because the Indigenous way of knowing does not follow the same processes of knowing that scientific research uses. The article “Arctic Climate Change Discourse: The Contrasting Politics of Research Agendas in the West and Russia” discusses how the language used by non-native people to discuss Indigenous knowledge is Western-focused. Researchers should not ask questions that are based on a scientific understanding of the world. For example, researchers should ask about the weather and the way it has changed, instead of the scientific concept of climate change. It is not productive to try to conform Indigenous knowledge to a scientific standard.

Sami man with his reindeer.
Credit: John Vidal

 Adaptive Capacity

Adaptive capacity is how well one can cope with change. Researchers often use this term when discussing the dangers faced by communities in the arctic due to climate change. Representatives of the Inuit have stated that they do not believe their communities can adapt to the rapidly changing climate. While this alone is troubling, the fact that native Arctic residents shared these concerns over a decade ago is even more worrisome. Progress to slow the negative affects of Arctic climate change has not been nearly fast enough, as similar stories are being told today.

What can Anthropologists do?

The article “Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change” states that the best way for anthropologists to help with the arctic climate crisis is to involve the public and advocate for those most acutely affected. Anthropologists researching this issue can share their experiences working in communities at risk with other areas facing similar issues. The goal is for anthropologists to help facilitate communication between those closely impacted by the changing climate, as well as spread their findings to a larger audience.

Humanizing Perspective

While most scientists concerned with the climate crisis focus on the impact it has on the physical planet, anthropologists have the unique opportunity of examining the way Arctic climate change affects individuals. It is hard for many to sympathize with the plight of Earth itself, especially when presented with confusing figures and data. Listening to the stories of how climate change has affected the lives of real people is much easier to digest and understand. This is why the job of anthropologists is essential for climate solutions. This is said best in the article “Climate and Culture:Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change.” The passage reads, “Anthropologists are strategically well-suited to interpret, facilitate, translate, communicate, advocate, and act in response to the cultural implications of unprecedented change.”

Students listen to speaker discuss climate change.
Credit: Martin Lipman

What Can You Do to Curb Arctic Climate Change?

As stated previously, community-based efforts are the best way to stop climate change. The public must push for local government to hold corporations accountable for the waste they produce, as 71% of greenhouse gas emissions come from 100 companies. Use your personal skills to get the word out. For instance, you could make leaflets if you are a good writer. Engaging with your peers is also a great way to spread the word, as one cannot solve the climate crisis by themselves. Go to town hall meetings and create groups to push for government action. It is also important to lead by example. Reduce your use of fossil fuels by eating foods locally produced and that are in season. Public transport is a great way to curb personal emissions, but is not available in all areas. Therefore, you could petition your city to invest more in the bus system.

Concluding Remarks: Spurring Action

Throughout this post the cultural impacts of Arctic climate change have been discussed, as well as how this crisis affects anthropological work. Glacial archeologists have not only the duty of preserving all thawing archeological material possible, but advocating for the people most affected by Arctic climate change. Bringing the plight of people losing their homes to permafrost erosion can help show the general public that the climate crisis is a real, tangible issue.


2 thoughts on “Arctic Climate Change: Impacts, Solutions, and the Anthropological Perspective

  1. Excellent, informative post. Well-written and easy to read. Looking forward to more of your posts in the future.

  2. I found this article to be interesting and educational. Thank you for not only sharing the impact of Arctic climate change, but also presenting possible solutions. I hope to see more articles from you.

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