By Mariah McCooey-University of Victoria researcher Dr. Ian Walker was in Gwaii Haanas recently, assessing the susceptibility of Haida cultural sites in the park to rising sea levels and climate change.
“What we’ve learned is that erosion is quite natural, particularly on sandy shorelines,” he said, “but it’s clear from visiting Skung Gwaii, Skedans, Tanu that many of the sites are experiencing accelerated erosion.”
He said that in several places, old midden sites are being exposed, indicating that the erosion happening now is occurring at a historically rapid rate. Part of this is due to the 2003 Christmas Eve storm, which took a big bite out of the coastline, but also because of steadily rising sea levels.
The other issue, he said, is that the sites are well-visited, and all the human traffic on the beaches and dunes is adding to the problem.
A lot of the islands in the park have steep, rocky shores, which are fairly erosion-proof – the problem is that humans, both prehistorically and historically, tend to settle on the nice, sandy exposed areas that are most prone to erosion.
Because this trip was basically a ‘reconnaissance,’ Dr. Walker said that it’s difficult to assess yet what kind of threat the ancient sites are facing, and at what rate they’re eroding. This trip was to do a preliminary assessment, he said, including the creation of monitoring profiles, to be compared at a future date.
“As a park, their interests are in documenting, understanding, and preserving areas as best you can, while recognizing that ecological and environmental change is a part of it all.” The Haida, for the most part, don’t have a problem with letting the sites return to nature, he said, but that doesn’t mean that nothing should be done. He does have several recommendations to mitigate erosion in certain critical spots: for one, he is suggesting that tourists be prevented from walking on the grassy banks at Skung Gwaii.
Dr. Walker hopes to come back next year to see how much has changed. Gwaii Haanas beach and dune systems are especially pristine, he said, making them very interesting to study. Unlike dunes on Vancouver Island or even Graham Island, they are largely unaffected by invasive species.
Dr. Walker has been on the islands on and off for the past several years, studying the rate of erosion on East Beach and in Naikoon Park, and potential effects on the highway and airports.
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