High in the Rocky Mountains, where frozen patches normally cover the higher altitude regions of Yellowstone National Park year-round, increased temperatures have started to leave their mark on the area. And as the ice disappears, centuries-old wildlife, plants, and human tools are reappearing on the landscape.
It’s a bonanza for archaeologists, who rarely find so many important specimens at once. Unfortunately, it comes at a price: The artifacts are emerging at such a rate that scientists are unable to collect and preserve them all. According to Smithsonian, the ice once preserved a range of organic artifacts, like baskets and clothing, that would have decomposed under normal circumstances. But now that the glaciers are gone, these artifacts are disintegrating at an alarming rate.
So far, the archaeologists at Yellowstone have discovered artifacts ranging from a few hundred to 10,000 years old. These include ancient animals, trees, wooden weapons, and a variety of tools. Yellowstone archaeologist Staffan Peterson even discovered a wooden tool he thinks was once used to spread resin—an “item he never knew existed,” according to WyoFile.
It’s bittersweet news for the scientists—the artifacts they manage to preserve will provide important insights into the past, but each lost artifact feels like a missed opportunity. Peterson told WyoFile, "I get the feeling of ‘My God, these things are melting right in front of me, and any value they have for science is melting away with them."
This isn't the only example of climate change fueling archaeological discovery. "Ice patch archaeology" is currently practiced in a number of regions. Meanwhile, droughts and wildfires have revealed a slew of Native American artifacts in California's state parks. Unfortunately, as the Monterey Herald reports, looters have been snatching up the artifacts before archaeologists can get to them.