Three miles off the northern coast of Canada’s Yukon territory, a 44-square-mile island once at the center of the Arctic whaling industry lies largely abandoned. Called Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, the site is the traditional home of the Inuvialuit Inuit tribe; it also houses Pauline Cove, a whaling town deserted after demand for whale products dried up.
Archaeologist Peter Dawson has spent years documenting historic Arctic structures with drones and laser scanning technology. Now, he is sharing this data with the public by uploading an array of 3-D digital replicas to the Sketchfab modeling portal.
As Dawson tells CBC News’ Karen McColl, Herschel and other historical sites in the Arctic are vulnerable to environmental threats linked with climate change and the growing field of “polar tourism.” In the past 20 years, says Dawson, parts of Herschel Island have lost some 65 feet of coastline to erosion.
Speaking with the Toronto Star’s Bill Graveland in 2015, the archaeologist—then working to digitally preserve Fort Conger on nearby Ellesmere Island—explained, “We were finding the depletion of sea ice was creating storm surges, which were flooding some sites like Herschel Island.”
At Fort Conger specifically, added Dawson, “Melting permafrost is causing the surface area to sink and erode and that’s damaging the wooden buildings.”
Today, Herschel Island’s visitors include the Inuvialuit, who relocated to the mainland in the early 1900s but return periodically to practice and teach traditional customs; tourists; and researchers. The island, only accessible by boat or small aircraft, is frequently covered in fog that delays trips and limits sightseeing opportunities.
Though work crews perform restoration and conservation work in Pauline Cove every summer, Barbara Hogan, manager of historic sites for Yukon Tourism and Culture, tells CBC News she considers Dawson’s 3-D replicas a useful safeguard in case structures need to be rebuilt or relocated.
“We thought it was a good idea to get a comprehensive record of the site while we could in case the water levels rise and we’re at a point where we can't capture some of the information,” says Hogan. “It’s giving us a really, really good record of the outside of the buildings and the inside of the buildings and an overview of the historic settlement area.”
To date, Dawson has created 22 models of buildings in Pauline Cove, one model of an Inuvialuit sod house and an interactive map of the island. Many of the buildings captured in his renderings were key to the whaling industry: Among others, the list includes a blubber house, where workers slowly heated blubber into waxy whale oil used in soap and lamp fuel; the Northern Whaling and Trading Company warehouse; and the Pacific Steam Whaling Company Bone House.
The whaling industry collapsed in 1907, when petroleum oil and steel springs largely replaced whale oil and baleen, reported Sarah Zielinski for Smithsonian magazine in 2009.
Herschel Island’s historic sites aren’t just threatened by climate change-accelerated erosion. Growing Arctic tourism also has an unmeasured impact on the sites.
“You can get 40 or 50 passengers disembarking at a time and wandering around and it’s very difficult to monitor the impact these visitors are having,” Dawson told the Toronto Star in 2015. “They can pick up artifacts or accidentally damage a building.”
Wild animals have also destroyed buildings, says Dawson to CBC News. Herschel Island is home to moose, musk oxen and caribou; the site is one of the few places where black, polar and grizzly bears share the same habitat, per Smithsonian magazine.
Because the island is so difficult to get to, Dawson’s scans provide a more accessible view of the island’s history.
“Not everybody gets to make their way to Herschel Island,” Michelle Gruben, a member of the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, tells CBC News. “And to see this type of new technology that shows people the area, it's good to see.”