Rapid Landscape Changes, Their Causes, and How They Affect Human History and Culture


  • Antony R. Berger


Despite common knowledge about harmful natural processes and disasters, there appears today to be a widespread belief that somehow if only people would be less destructive in their behaviour with respect to the environment, natural systems and landscapes would remain unchanged—static and immutable. Yet there are many landscape changes that can be readily seen within a normal human lifetime, and the record of past environments provides clear evidence that rapid changes occurred in many places. Variations in climate are one cause, but there are other "drivers," too, such as volcanic eruptions, coastal erosion, floods, fires, and earthquakes. Although abrupt changes prior to the mid-Holocene are primarily of non-human origin, the current warming in the Arctic appears to be largely human-induced. However, sorting out human from non-human drivers is not an easy task. Environments and ecosystems around the planet are clearly under stress from human activities, but even when left alone natural landscapes by and large are not static and fixed. The story of landscape change in the North is being refined by paleoenvironmental science through fossil remains, lake sediments, ice cores, tree rings, ground temperature profiles, and by archaeology and ethnography. It is also told through the cultural narratives of Indigenous peoples, which speak of ancestors and how they lived. When integrated with the recent findings of science, even shadowy recollections of landscape changes in the distant past may yield information as to how people reacted. Such insights could serve to influence the way people today think about history and about nature, and might even provide perspectives to help cope with environmental change in the coming years.






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