A not so quick trip to Nuvuk

I got out to Nuvuk today for the first time today. The ARM project that we support want to put a flux tower at the Point to measure flux off the ocean during the open water season.  The thing is that the ideal spot for the tower is on the ridge where the Nuvuk site is.

In the past, other folks wanted to put flux towers there, but there simply wasn’t room for a tower in an area where we had already tested and recovered all the burials, and we didn’t want to chance disturbance to a burial.  Now we’ve gotten a good way ahead of the erosion, so it seemed that it might be possible.  However, I didn’t want the tower to be on top of the possible Ipiutaq structures, just in case funding for their excavation is available.  Since the tower installation involved moving a little gravel, it was important for me to be there just in case something showed up.

It took a while to get out there, since the ARM Kubota is on tracks and can only go about 15 miles an hour.  We quickly got a spot picked for the tower.  After that, I spent most of my time looking around for bears while the others started putting the tower together.  I spotted 2, a mom and a cub, who were heading to the bone pile.

Polar bears heading for a meal.
Assembling the base for the tower.
Putting the tower together.
Putting the instruments on the tower.

We decided to use sandbags for the guy-wires and then added some more on top the tracks on the base plate.  To minimize disturbance to the site, we decided fill the “sand”bags with beach gravel, and bring them up with a four-wheeler.

“Sand”bags on the Honda.

After the tower was assembled and the instruments were on, the instruments needed to be wired up.  That took a while, but I had to sick around since one of them needed to look down are gravel, so we needed to cover the plywood base plate, which meant more digging.

That gave me time to check out the area where we salvaged the Ipiutak structure last fall.  Good thing we did that last fall, because that area is gone.  There is a big notch in the bluff there, and that’s it.  It would have been a pity to lose that, because we found some very interesting things in the field and in the lab.

Where the Ipiutak structure was…

While I was getting to play, the crew was working away in the lab.  They have finished floating and sorting the materials from the fall salvage, and are moving on.  Over the winter, we’ve had several sets of visitors on short notice, which required some materials to be cleaned off benches fairly quickly.  As a result, there were a lot of miscellaneous boxes around the lab.  The crew has reorganized several cabinets and gotten most of the boxes emptied. There is plenty of bench space, so we are moving on to cataloging and marking.

Part of the hard-working lab crew (l. to r. Victoria, Trina & Trace) working on faunal remains.

A doozy of a field trip

Wednesday was a fun and productive day.  There is a group of middle-school students from a Fairbanks charter school who are in Barrow for about a week on a class trip.  (I think the best we got in middle school was a one (loooong) day bus trip to New York City).  They are going to all sorts of places in the community, including my lab & the ARM site.  They came over to the BARC, and I gave them an archaeological tour of Barrow via PowerPoint, since some of the sites are hard to get to in the winter and don’t look like much right now if you do get there.   I also spent a bit of time on the various ways sites are endangered in Alaska (erosion, permafrost melting, etc.)  and why that matters.  They asked a lot of good questions.  Some of them (maybe all) have been helping in the archaeological collections at the UAF Museum of the North, so they had a bit of background.

Half of the students from Fairbanks in the lab looking at artifacts.

After that, we split them into two groups.  Half of them went out to the ARM site, where Mark Ivey of Sandia National Labs & Jimmy & Josh Ivanoff  gave them a tour, while the other half came to the lab, and then the groups switched.  Since we’re working on weekends, there are samples in various stages of processing, so I was able to show them the process we are using on the Ipiutak floor samples from this fall.  Then we looked at the Ipiutak sled runners, which I’d shown in situ (in place in the ground) in the PowerPoint.  After that, we looked at the items from the Nuvuk-01 hunter’s tool kit.  As usual, the little owl fastener was the star :-).

The little owl toggle from the Nuvuk-01 tool kit.

In the afternoon, I got two contract reports in for last year, and moved on to calibrating radiocarbon dates for the big project I’ve been doing.  I’m using CALIB, since it reportedly may be a bit more accurate, but it’s output format means that you can’t just cut and paste columns.  The only way to keep track was to do about 30 at a time.  I got several hundred done, and finally gave up when it simply kept ignoring two dates. I couldn’t see any problem with the input formating, but it just didn’t make any output.  Oh well, there is tomorrow.

Actually, there wasn’t, since I was home with a fever and sore throat.  We have a half-day holiday for Barrow employees for Piuraagiaqta (Spring Festival), which starts today and runs all weekend.   I’m actually taking the time off, since the Internet at the office is sketchy at the moment.  There is a switchover from one connection to the earth station to another in progress, and it is not going as well as hoped.

Excavation progress

We got to the field yesterday.  Bryan Thomas and Scott Oyagak (bear guard) from BASC, and Courtney Hammond, the new BASC intern, were joined by dental extern Audrey Navarro.  We got the site uncovered, removing all the trash bags that had been pinned in place to help protect the actual surface.  It had suffered some damage, so we laid out a gird of 1/4 m square units, took surface elevations, and started slowly removing and bagging the entire matrix of the first 1/4 meter in, in 5 cm levels.  This was the most disturbed, and I could not find the floor level.  If I couldn’t, it’s not surprising that the volunteers, two of whom were excavating for the first time, couldn’t do it.  Bryan was mostly running the transit, since he’s done that a bit and is fine with the program (just needs more practice aiming the theodolite to get really fast–it’s harder for him since he’s a lefty and it is totally built for right-handed people).  By the end of the day, there were a couple of hints of where the floor was, although one was much higher than the other.

There were hints of two levels of floor earlier this summer as we moved away from the hearth, perhaps due to a renovation of the structure which involved adding gravel to the floor/bench, so that might be what is showing up.  It certainly doesn’t make figuring out where the floor is from a profile (I use the term very loosely, since we are talking about unconsolidated gravel here).

Today, I went out with Glenn Sheehan, from BASC, who is also an archaeologist by profession (also my husband), since I really needed someone else who could dig without direct supervision if I needed to run the transit, and Bryan and Scott. As it turned out, Glenn was able to find a small chert flake and then an ivory flake and follow out a level from there.  Pieces of wood are turning up as well.  Mike and Patsy Aamodt stopped by after checking their net and we chatted for a bit.  They just came back from their cabin, where they had both nanuqs (polar bears) and brown bears hanging around.  Amazingly, we’ve seen none yet this season, which is a first.

Tomorrow the weather is supposed to be very windy, and we were having trouble getting local volunteers since it is the Homecoming game for the Whalers football team.  However, Nok Acker from BASC arrived to spell Scott so he could get home in time for his babysitter to go home, and had heard that a team of oceanographers who are in town want to go out tomorrow (probably because there is a small craft advisory so they can’t go boating 🙂 ), so we may go out anyway.  Rain/snow/30 knot winds may mean a short day, but so be it.  There is a bit of gravel that can be moved even if it’s too windy to excavate (or even expose the surface).

Anyway, now that we have the surface, we can follow it, record visible artifacts, and bring the matrix back for screening & flotation in the lab.  Given the macro-fossil stuff and the micro-flakes, it’s the only way to get the structure excavated enough to find the edge before it gets wiped out by a storm.

Further adventures

I have been majorly busy since the last post.  I had two days to get a RAPID proposal in to NSF for funds to salvage the remaining portion of the Ipiutak structure.

The Ipiutak structure excavation and the sea

I was scheduled to go to Cape Espenberg to take part in a project there under the direction of John Hoffecker of INSTAAR, and had to get on a plane on July 28.   I wasn’t due back in Barrow until August 13th, and NSF had to process all grants before then, so if the proposal didn’t get in then, they wouldn’t be able to get the money out if it was successful.  Since the house could go in a storm, I spent 2 days writing & submitting the proposal, threw my stuff in a dry bag & my day pack and left for Cape Espenberg.

I had a great time there, with interesting archaeology, which will be a post for another day.  From Cape Espenberg, I flew to Kotzebue and then on to Point Hope for the North Slope Borough Elders/Youth Conference.  It was a great conference, and I had a great time, despite finding out that the workshop I thought I was giving was actually a talk to the entire conference (which I had no PowerPoint for).  Another post for another day.  While there, I found out that the RAPID was successful.

I got back to Barrow after some weather and plane repair delays, to find that the surveyors who I was supposed to work with had done their thing and left town.  I’ve been extracting info from them and trying to get that survey set up, since the report needs to get done, the helicopter needs to head south & I have a 4-day  trip to New York State scheduled on the 25th.  Meanwhile, it turns out that most if not all of the heavy equipment in Barrow is either committed to a job or broken, so we’re having trouble getting a bulldozer to move the 100 yards of gravel piled on top of the rest of the Ipiutak structure.

If that’s not enough, a human skull was found in Wainwright by surveyors (actually the same surveyors) who were doing preliminary work for a possible road project.  The client decided that it would be a good idea to get an archaeologist to come down and see if the skull was an isolated find or if there might be more, and give them suggestions for how to proceed with the road design, as well as make sure the proper reports and documentation were done.  I leave for Wainwright tomorrow afternoon, and hope to be back Friday night, weather permitting.

On top of that, there’s a teleconference & a meeting in the morning.  I just finished an interview with Pat Yack of Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN), who won a ticket to anywhere ERA flies and used it to come to Barrow.   It was quite enjoyable, since he’d done some homework, and asked intelligent questions.  Turns out he’s next-door neighbors with Max Brewer, the long-time NARL science director who lived in the house we now live in.  Small world.

Pat Yack, APRN, at work in the Nuvuk lab
Pat Yack, APRN, at work in the Nuvuk lab

Lab and logistics–Pt. 2

The mad rush toward the field continues.  Laura Thomas is back, so it was possible to slip out to attend to things like a staff meeting during the day.  A good thing, since there is only one full work day left in the week for us in Barrow.  Tomorrow and Thursday are half-day holidays for Nalukataqs (celebrations of successful whaling seasons hosted by captains and crews) and the multi-day Fourth of July/NSB Founders’ Day holiday kicks off on Friday, so we get the afternoon off then too.  Monday, July 4th, is a holiday too, and then fieldwork starts, a week from tomorrow!

All of the new NSF crew was here, so we had planned to do the candy eating exercise.  Unfortunately, the two new ECHO crew members, who probably needed it the most, were not in today, but due to the holiday and the fact that the large conference room where we do the exercise is booked on Wednesday, we decided to forge ahead.  We wound up splitting into groups by gender (the first time that has happened, I think) and it was interesting how that turned out.  The HS students were all old hands, so they got to be the actors.  The girls worked collaboratively on a very complicated “site” and had to stop because they ran out of candy.  The guys each more or less did their own thing in parallel.

We did a safety briefing on various hazards that might be encountered in the field (chiefly ATVs, cold, sun, the propane stove, generator, polar bears, and strains & sprains).  Then there was a quiz on skeletal elements, to be repeated on Wednesday in hopes that people will do better.  Actually, everyone seems to know what the elements are, but how the names are spelled is a bit sketchier.   Since I’m tired of having to do global replaces of “humorous” with “humerus” (upper arm bones not being particularly funny), I think this is time well spent.  The afternoon finished with repacking the supplies which had been shipped up from Anchorage priority instead of buying local :-(.  That will complicate the returning of the Tylenol PM that showed up instead of Tylenol.  I’m not sure why the person doing the shopping thought that was appropriate for a job site first aid kit?!  Especially when everyone drives to and from the site…

After the crew went home, I had to work up a proposal for some work to be done later this summer.  I got it all done except for the prices for helicopter time.  Once I get them, I plug them into the spreadsheet and send it off.

Now I’m working on a concept paper for what could be done with a large collection that is here in Barrow at the Inupiat Heritage Center.  I have to finish that this week, as well as get a small survey done of a site on Point Barrow where some researchers want to set up a current radar.  So, back to work…

Now that I’m home…

I was lucky enough to get an upgrade from Alaska Airlines, so at least I wasn’t bent up like a pretzel all the way to Barrow.  They weren’t any too quick about getting the baggage out, and no-one was to be found to issue the Baggage Service Guarantee vouchers after the 20 minutes had passed, so we took my bag when it showed up (after about 1/2 hour) and went home.

Luckily, today was a holiday so I could sleep late.  Once up, there was the usual post-travel laundry pile to start on.  Once that was underway, I had to dig out my car.  There had been a blizzard in Barrow on Friday, which had blown snow into our arctic entryway, among other places.

Snow in the arctic entryway.

It had also blown all over my vehicle, which required significant digging out.  Apparently the blowing or subsequent plowing had somehow packed snow around my left rear mudflap, since that shattered when I pulled out (only went forward) although I didn’t discover that until I got home.

View out the front door, showing snowed-in car, and ivu (ice push) on the beach in the background.

The wind had apparently also caused some pretty significant ice push from the Chukchi Sea onto the beach.  You can see it in the background of the photo above.  The ice is black in places because it was frozen to the bottom.  The ice is very thin for this time of year.  In some places it is probably 20 or more feet tall.

Once I got to work I caught up on emails, drafted a “mission statement” for a working group on coastal erosion I am helping to organize (contact me if you are interested–it’s global, not just Arctic in focus), worked on an encyclopedia article a bit, and took care of things like time-sheet approvals which can be a time suck, but are fairly important (we all like getting paid!).

Coastal Flood Watch Remains in Effect

I woke up and turned on the radio this morning in time to hear the morning fellow recommend paying attention to the weather.  Since most folks here do that anyway, it was obvious that something a bit unusual was coming.

…COASTAL FLOOD WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 2 AM AKDT SATURDAY THROUGH LATE SATURDAY NIGHT…

A COASTAL FLOOD WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 2 AM AKDT SATURDAY THROUGH LATE SATURDAY NIGHT. LOW PRESSURE 400 MILES NORTH OF BARROW EARLY THIS AFTERNOON WILL STRENGTHEN TONIGHT AS THE LOW MOVES SOUTH. BY SATURDAY MORNING THE LOW IS EXPECTED TO BE ABOUT 250 MILES NORTH OF BARROW. STRONG NORTHWEST WINDS WILL DEVELOP ALONG THE BACKSIDE OF THE LOW. WIND SPEEDS OF AROUND 25 KNOTS ARE EXPECTED IN BARROW LATE TONIGHT THROUGH SATURDAY NIGHT WITH WINDS TO 35 KNOTS OFFSHORE.

THE SEA ICE IS NOW NEAR SEASONAL MINIMUMS AND THERE IS OPEN WATER SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES TO THE NORTHWEST OF BARROW. THIS WILL CAUSE SEAS NEAR SHORE TO BUILD TO 9 TO 13 FEET ON SATURDAY. THE SEAS ARE EXPECTED TO BREAK ALONG OR NEAR SHORE. IN ADDITION TO THE HIGH SEAS A STORM SURGE OF UP TO 2 FEET IS POSSIBLE AROUND THE TIMES OF HIGH TIDE SATURDAY AND SATURDAY NIGHT. SIGNIFICANT BEACH EROSION IS EXPECTED WITH MINOR COASTAL FLOODING POSSIBLE AROUND THE TIMES OF HIGH TIDE. THE AREA AROUND STEVENSON STREET NEAR THE BOAT LAUNCH BY THE CITY PLAYGROUND IS PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE TO FLOODING. OTHER LOW SPOTS ON DOWN THE BEACH WILL ALSO HAVE THE POTENTIAL FOR MINOR FLOODING.

ADDITIONALLY…SIGNIFICANT EROSION TO THE BLUFFS ARE LIKELY AS WELL.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS

… A COASTAL FLOOD WATCH MEANS THAT CONDITIONS FAVORABLE FOR FLOODING ARE EXPECTED TO DEVELOP. COASTAL RESIDENTS SHOULD BE ALERT FOR LATER STATEMENTS OR WARNINGS…AND TAKE ACTION TO PROTECT PROPERTY. NOW IS THE TIME TO MAKE PREPARATIONS AND MOVE ALL PROPERTY WELL AWAY FROM THE BEACH.

Not what I needed to hear…   Turns out it’s the first big fall storm.  With the ice so far out, that means lots of room for the wind to put energy into the water, which means big waves and a storm surge.  That means beach erosion for sure, and maybe coastal flooding.  Our weather forecasts here are a bit less accurate than those most other places, because there are no observing stations where the weather is coming from.  It’s sort of like trying to predict weather in Pennsylvania using data from nothing but a weather station in Chicago.

I don’t like fall storms and coastal erosion.  Aside from the dangers associated with flooding (the house I live in floated in 1963, and if it does it again we might wind up in a sewage lagoon), erosion is the most immediate threat to coastal archaeological sites.  I spend my summers trying to organize things so that we got well ahead of erosion at Nuvuk and now are trying to stay that way.

2004 fall storm erodes Nuvuk
Nuvuk bluff slumps from effects of surf

The thing is, Nuvuk, where “the houses are all gone under the sea” to borrow T.S. Elliot’s phrase, is just one of many important sites.  Utqiagvik, Nunagiak, Ipiutak, Tikigak (Point Hope), and so on down the coast.  Most of the sites on the Beaufort coast from Point Barrow east to the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada have already washed away and out of the archaeological record.

Taking the temperature of permafrost and archaeology

Today the Saturday Schoolyard talk was about warming permafrost.  The speaker was Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, head of the Permafrost Laboratory at the Geophysical Institute at UAF.  He gave a really good talk, explaining what permafrost is (permanently frozen ground, basically), why it matters if it melts, and how permafrost researchers go about taking its temperature (with thermistor (temperature sensor) strings down boreholes, mostly).  He then went on to show how permafrost temperatures had changed through time as the atmospheric temperature had changed.

After that, he moved to predictive modeling based on climatic models.  Using even a fairly middle-of-the-road climate model, it doesn’t look too good for permafrost in Alaska by the end of the century.  He also showed active layer (the soil layer at the top that freezes and thaws every year) modeling done on a similar basis some years ago, and pointed out that over the 10 years since the model was run it had been spot on in its predictions.  The active layer is clearly going to be a lot deeper if the predictions hold.

This is not good news for Arctic archaeology.  Compared to most of the rest of the world, where archaeologists are left to puzzle out what people were doing from a few stone tools, waste flakes and potsherds, we get really good organic preservation here, which makes it possible to look at questions that can’t be addressed elsewhere for lack of relevant data.  The reason the preservation is so good is in large part permafrost, and permanently frozen sites.  Last week, when Claire was here, we were getting a lot of well-preserved 1600-1700 year old marine invertebrates from the samples.  They exist because the layer was frozen for most, if not all, of that time.

I’m been thinking a lot about site destruction, and how to determine which areas are at highest risk, in order to prioritize field efforts.  Perhaps because coastal erosion is the big and immediate threat at Nuvuk (and all the other coastal sites I’ve worked at except for Ipuitak, where the immediate threat was the seawall being built to prevent coastal erosion), I’ve tended to focus on that, as well as eroding river banks for sites along rivers.  The melting of exposed ice wedges, which then leads to collapse of the overlying ground is also something I’ve been concerned about.  And these are major threats, which can tumble entire houses upside down on the beach for the waves to destroy.

Undercutting by waves caused the gravel to slump from underneath this grave at Nuvuk.
Storm-driven surf tears into the mound at Ukkuqsi in Barrow.
Tunnel remnants after the storm. The house was to the left, where only thin air can be seen.
Ice wedge in bluffs near Barrow. They can be much larger.
Slump block on beach at Barrow after a storm.
Slumps from thawing ground along a Colville River cut bank.
A Colville River cut bank from the air. Notice the earlier slump that has stabilized and even grown over, and the fresh cut at the bottom from the river's current.

I hadn’t thought much at all about the risks to Arctic archaeology from a significant deepening of the active layer, which will mean that artifacts and ecofacts (animal bones, insects, etc.) will freeze and thaw every year (which is hard on things to begin with, often causing rocks and bones to split) and while they are thawed, they will be decaying.  Even now, really old sites don’t have much organic preservation.  Even sites that are in no danger of eroding are threatened with the gradual invisible loss of a great deal of the information they now contain.

Obviously, if we are going to develop a “threat matrix” for Arctic archaeological sites, this has to be part of it.  I talked to Vlad a bit after the talk, and he thought he had students who could be put to work on this problem, perhaps by combining what we know about site locations in Alaska (by no means a complete listing) and the existing models for permafrost change.  He also said that one could do active layer modeling for a specific site with a year’s worth of soil and air temperatures, so that’s something we definitely need to get started on.