Snow scientist helps archaeologists know where to look for finds

A study underway at Gates of the Arctic National Park is looking at how warming temperatures are eroding snow that can carry important archaeological information.

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Molly Tedesche is a snow hydrologist and engineering PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This summer she worked in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve studying the location and dynamics of snow patches. Contrary to appearances, the structure of these snow patches is complex and multi-layered.

“First of all you’re looking at the seasonal layer — some of which disappears, and some of which accumulates. And underneath that you have the snow that might be 5 or 10 years old. And then under that you have snow that could be hundreds or even thousands of years old.”

Tedesche says what lies embedded in those older layers is drawing the attention of archaeologists.

Preserved in ice are arrow shafts, fragments of animal skins and even soft tissues thousands of years old. Usually these are the parts of early cultures that decay over time. So when snow patches melt, archeologist have to move quickly to retrieve the past. Tedesche says her work hopefully gives them an edge in the race against time.

“One: which (snow patches) are melting out first. And two: which (snow patches) have archaeological potential because some of them are laid out on terrain that is most likely without access by ancient hunters, caribou hunters.”

Tedesche hopes in the future to apply other techniques, like ground penetrating radar in the effort to produce a robust predictive model on snow patch longevity.