The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, at Ellesmere Island in 1881 (Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia)
Limited access is just one of the challenges that face preservationists of polar heritage and archaeological sites. The small structures and evidence that humans ever visited the extremes of our planet are in danger of disappearing — and, in some place, climate change is making all the more likely that they’ll be lost altogether.
Polar preservation is a relatively recent concern: the first humans to reach the South Pole made it there a little over a century ago, and though the people who explored these regions did want to leave some evidence of their achievements, immediate survival was often a more pressing concern.
Over the past couple of decades, as polar tourism has increased and territorial claims have gone unresolved, heritage sites in the polar regions have been officially recognized and legal protections put in place. Norway, for instance, protects all human sites predating 1946 on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, and under the Antarctic treaty, 90 historic sites and monuments have been recognized—flag masts, rock cairn, sledges, cemeteries, and the huts and tents of polar explorers. It’s illegal to damage, remove, or destroy these sites.
Similarly, in the Antarctic, there is a treaty in place between the countries carrying out research in the region. A key focus of the Antarctic Treaty is the protection of the Antarctic environment, including historical sites of significance.
The Antarctic Heritage Trust based in New Zealand, is engaged in a long-term cold conservation project to protect the explorers’ legacy – the bases and the artefacts they left behind – for current and future generations. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the trust has made a significant push to conserve the huts and artifacts found in the Ross Sea region.
The idea that climate change is affecting the preservation of polar history is really quite interesting. For example, newly melting permafrost is threatening the stability of buildings.