The impact of climate change on the archaeology of New Zealand’s coastline

7 Aug 2013

Abstract: With rising sea levels, changes in precipitation patterns and an increased incidence of severe weather events being predicted as a result of global climate change, the Department of Conservation commissioned a study to determine the potential impacts of these effects on New Zealand’s archaeological sites, which are mostly located near the coast. A Geographic Information System (GIS)-based case study examined the distribution of archaeological sites in the Whangarei District and assessed the risk to the archaeological resource primarily from sea level rise associated with future climate change.

The results of the analysis are fairly conclusive. Currently, the major threats to archaeological sites in coastal areas are erosion, flooding and ground instability, and some sites are at risk from more than one of these threats. Approximately one-third of the recorded site locations in the Whangarei District are potentially threatened by these hazards, regardless of any future climate change effects. Climate change will exacerbate existing coastal hazards, and increase the likelihood and severity of impacts on archaeological sites. An additional 2.5–10% of archaeological sites might be affected by increased threats due to predicted changes in climate, including rising sea levels. The types of sites that are most likely to be affected in the Whangarei District are coastal midden and small habitation sites relating to Māori occupation. Although these could be affected by all three of the major hazards identified, they are particularly susceptible to coastal erosion. Land stability issues and flooding are likely to affect a greater range of sites, including larger sites such as pā and sites relating to early European settlement. It is not possible to quantify the risk to sites from increased land instability as a result of global climate change, but it is noted that any increase in extreme weather events would not be confined to coastal areas. These sites potentially hold significant information relating to the history of both the district and New Zealand. The implications of the study are that coastal sites are already under considerable threat, and that important archaeological information is being lost at a rate that may increase significantly in the future. Action is needed now to protect or retrieve the information from significant sites under threat in coastal areas before these sites disappear completely.

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