By Jeneva Wright, ACUA Board Member

“The era of global warming has ended…the era of global boiling has arrived” was UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s tagline in a speech last week that underlined July 2023’s record-breaking temperatures as likely the hottest month in human history. The impacts of climate change are apparent and intensifying and affect our entire world. This includes underwater archaeological sites, in ways that we do not yet fully understand.

The traditional entry point is to look to the impacts themselves: how are shipwrecks effected by warming water, acidification, intensified and accelerating storm impacts, and erosion? This is a worthy and major area of study, with more and more practitioners incorporating climate change monitoring and impact assessment into their work. As researchers produce more data to answer these questions, however, sites are being dramatically impacted in real-time, with or without articles published and research completed. Therefore, to “level up” in climate change response is to ask the follow-on question: how does, or should, climate change transform underwater archaeological practice itself?

This is a provocative question, as it forces a reckoning with our discipline’s contributions to the climate crisis: our waste in the office and field, our carbon footprints running endless lines of hydrographic survey and transporting people and equipment to remote maritime locales, and our roles in promulgating siloed data that do not readily lend themselves to interdisciplinary research. It makes us own the lack of diversity in our field, that echoes in the disproportionate impacts that climate change is having on underserved communities of racial and ethnic minorities. It makes us recognize how many archaeological sites will be lost, and the hard choices about which ones will receive our attention, research, time, and money.

It also requires a recognition of all that underwater archaeology can do to support climate change responses in meaningful and positive ways. One of the most apparent is the ability to share data on in-situ site conservation and preservation practices, particularly for sites that will be newly underwater; the notion that “submerged” does not necessarily have to equate to “destroyed” is still a novel concept in many climate change discussions. Another is the exploration of vulnerability assessments and site adaptations, utilizing our relatively small field to share freely on emerging processes, lessons learned, and outcomes. Yet another is the ability to work meaningfully and intensively with local communities, Tribes, citizen scientists, students, and a wide array of scientific disciplines for ethical, collaborative, co-productive, and transdisciplinary responses to climate change. Such acts can be transformative, not only for underwater archaeological practice, but for broad climate change response.

The ACUA is also committed to engaging in this arena. At SHA 2023 in Lisbon, ACUA co-sponsored the panel, “Climate Change and Maritime Archaeology: Developing Research Agendas, Gap Analyses, and Next Steps.” The results from that panel have slowly been collated and assessed, with an outline and plan in development. ACUA is also a recent signatory of a Public Agreement for Climate Change and U.S. Culture Associations, committing to joining colleagues to advance climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience work across the cultural sector. Finally, SHA’s publication, Historical Archaeology, will soon be releasing a special thematic issue, “Archaeology of the Anthropocene: Historical Archaeology’s Response to the Climate Crisis.” This issue features articles across terrestrial and underwater domains, with an intent to review not only new practices for archaeology in an era of climate change, but also the archaeology of the climate crisis itself.

Given the increasingly dire news cycles and projections around climate change, it can be easy to be desensitized or overwhelmed, or simply removed from the issue. Yet, the earth is changing, rapidly. We have an opportunity to meet those changes, on behalf of our professional discipline, of the sites that we are passionate about, and most importantly of people, the center of all cultural heritage. We can transform our practice to meet the crisis, and in doing so, actively conduct the archaeology of the Anthropocene.

Categorised in: