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What can lost underwater lands tell us about climate change?

Published: Mon 15 May 2017
What can lost underwater lands tell us about climate change?

Underwater lands that were submerged following the last Ice Age could yield vital clues about our current approach to climate change. Global experts in archaeology, climate change, history and oceanography will be discussing how we can unlock these secrets at a prestigious Royal Society meeting taking place on 15-16 May 2017.

After the last Ice Age, which ended around 20,000 years ago, global warming caused many populated landscapes to sink beneath the sea. Vast areas of land were lost around the world as ice caps melted and sea levels rose. These included the stretch of land between Britain and mainland Europe, known as Doggerland but also even larger areas in South East Asia and the lands around and between modern Siberia and Alaska – areas known respectively as Sundaland and Beringia. At times, even the areas now occupied by Australia’s barrier reef were habitable and home to human communities.

Although we know that climate change is a natural phenomenon that occurs periodically throughout history, we know relatively little about how our ancestors coped with such changes, and what effects a warming climate might have had on colonisation and migration. Research in these areas could help inform climate change debates in our current geological age – the Anthropocene – which is defined by the permanent and overwhelming impact of humans on the environment.

The Royal Society’s 2017 Theo Murphy International Scientific Meeting, is organised by archaeologists at the Universities of Bradford, York, St Andrew’s and Warwick, and the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. It will bring together world class researchers who will present case studies from the inundated lands off Siberia and Alaska, through the former plains of the North Sea and the Black Sea and across the immense lowlands now beneath the south China Sea and explore how the latest technologies can be used to model and analyse underwater landscapes, many of which have, until recently, been inaccessible to researchers.

These inaccessible landscapes have correctly been called the last great frontiers of archaeological and geographical exploration but, increasingly, technology is providing a route towards exploration. Geophysics is now providing maps of the hills and valleys of these lost worlds, and samples taken from marine sediment cores are now yielding detailed data, including DNA, on the flora and fauna within these areas.

Today a more co-ordinated and global approach is needed to draw together this new wealth of information. The Theo Murphy Meeting will enable experts to start to develop large-scale projects and ways of studying these lost lands and understand their contemporary relevance.

“These submerged landscapes have so far been inaccessible to archaeologists,” says Vince Gaffney, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bradford, who is co-ordinating the meeting. “The data that has been gathered has often been fragmentary, and many areas of interest are sealed beneath marine sediments. But modern technologies are now enabling archaeologists to mine these sites and extract new information about how these landscapes responded to huge environmental, cultural and technological changes.

“The opportunity to bring together specialists working on these landscapes will yield new insights and approaches to current climate change debates.”

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