Their findings will tell governments, scientists and NGOs how relationships between human beings and their environments may change in decades to come as a result of global warming.
"The circumpolar north is widely seen as an observatory for changing relations between human societies and their environment," says University of Buffalo anthropologist Ezra Zubrow, "and analysis of data gathered from all phases of the study eventually will enable more effective collaboration between today's social, natural and medical sciences as they begin to devise adequate responses to the global warming the world faces today."
This study, which will collect a vast array of archaeological and paleoenvironmental data, began with the Social Change and the Environment in Nordic Prehistory Project (SCENOP), a major international research study by scientists from the U.S., Canada and Europe of prehistoric sites in Northern Quebec and Finland.
Phase III, underway now, is the International Circumpolar Archaeological Project (ICAP), which focuses on a third sub-arctic region: Siberia's remote Kamchatka peninsula, a rough and extremely volcanic wilderness region the size of California.
"With forecasts of sea-level rises and changing weather patterns, people today have been forewarned about some likely ramifications of climate change," Zubrow says, "but those living thousands of years ago, during the Holocene climatic optimum, could not have known what lay ahead of them and how their land -- and lives -- would be changing.
"This was a slower change," he says, "about one-third the rate we face today. In the Holocene period, it took a thousand years for the earth to warm as much as it has over the past 300 years -- roughly the time spanned since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
"As in other phases of the study," Zubrow says, "our goal in Kamchatka is to clarify ancient regional chronologies and understand the ways prehistoric humans adapted to significant environmental changes, including warming, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and the seismic uplift of marine terraces that impacted the environment during the period in question."
Despite our more sophisticated prediction technology, and technologies overall, many of the world's people have residences and lifestyles that are just as vulnerable to climatic shift as those of our prehistoric ancestors. They, too, live along estuaries and coastlines subject to marked alteration as oceans rise.
Ultimately, information gathered over the next year by the geologists, archaeologists, geochemists, volcanologists and paleoecologists on Zubrow's team will be compared with data from the two other ICAP sites.
During an additional study phase Zubrow will conduct archaeological research in Mexico to ascertain how arctic climatic changes during the mid- and post-Holocene era affected human populations in a changing temperate climate.