The UK’s History Is Disappearing With Its Peatlands

The UK’s History Is Disappearing With Its Peatlands
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Climate change is coming for the UK’s history.

The country is home to tens of thousands of ancient sites dating back to the Roman era. Some sites are even more ancient, dating back to more than 4,000 years ago.

Many of them could be in danger, though. As many as 22,500 archeological sites across the UK could be ravaged by climate change, the BBC reported. Excavating and finding new ways to preserve these relics could take years. But by then, it may be too late to save some of the most fragile sites.

Andrew Birley, the chief archaeologist at Magna, a fort alongside the Roman-era Hadrian’s Wall, said he’s worried that we could lose a portal to the past. Ancient relics are already exceedingly rare.

“This sort of stuff doesn’t normally survive, “ Birley told the BBC. “It can give us amazing insights into what life was really like here on the Northern frontier almost 2,000 years ago.”

But the UK’s peatlands have preserved various treasures for millennia. Among the finds the BBC highlighted are a Roman toilet seat, the world’s oldest boxing glove, and the oldest handwritten letter by a woman. The country’s peatlands are waterlogged ecosystems that hold little oxygen, which helps prevent organic materials like textiles, leather, and even human remains from decomposing. They essentially act as a natural barrier to keep archeological sites locked in time. (They’re also great carbon sinks.)

But the UK — like the rest of the planet — is getting hotter. That’s causing its naturally occurring peatlands to dry out, putting the country’s ancient treasures at risk. The 2000s have been warmer than any period in at least the past 300 years, according to the UK Met Office. That was underscored last year when the Met Office issued its first extreme heat warning. The agency also launched a new Extreme Heat National Severe Weather Warning in June as temperatures are predicted to continue rising in the near future.

With hotter temperatures and less regular rainfall, the waterlogged soil in peatlands will dry out, allowing more oxygen to enter the soil. Once that happens, organic materials quickly rot away, erasing history in the process.

Desiccated peatlands aren’t the only way climate change is impacting archeological sites. A July 2018 heat wave revealed centuries-old settlements in several Welsh fields. While that actually shined a light on ancient history, the impact of rising temperatures on peatlands is a different story altogether — and it is alarming to think that these sites could disappear after being preserved for so long.