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Climate change archaeology: building resilience from research in the world’s coastal wetlands

This project starts from the knowledge that climate change is probably the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. This is particularly the case for the estimated 400 million people around the world living on land elevated less than 10 m above current sea level, because global warming will cause further sea-level rise. Current scenario planning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) suggests that by the end of the 21st century, global sea-levels could be up to 0.59 m higher than today. Coastal communities are therefore amongst the first to experience the environmental impact of climate change, and the poorest individuals and communities are likely to have the least resilience to sea-level change, as adaptation is often a costly matter. The first migrations due to sea-level rise are already taking place.

To date, very little attention has been expended on how people in the past adapted to (natural) climate change. The essence of this project is to see existing archaeological research as a repository of adaptive pathways that are set within long-term perspectives, and to actively gather from this ideas and concepts that can help build the social resilience of communities in the face of rapid climate change. This has been termed Climate Change Archaeology, and a paper detailing the concept was published in Antiquity 85.

The research question for this project is: how can archaeological research in the world's coastal wetlands contribute to strengthening the resilience of local communities in the face of climate change? The project adopts a comparative approach in order to provide a global perspective to the research problem, and involves four case studies: the North Sea basin, the Ahwar/Iraq Marshlands, the Sundarbans, and the Florida's coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico. The themes that are anticipated to emerge from this research are likely to underline the potential risks of short-term 'solutions' to the sustainability of coastal habitation, and the opportunities for long-term perspectives offered by archaeological research to constructively build resilience to climate change.

The research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is directed by Professor Robert Van de Noort.