Stone Age Tsunami! Whatever next?
Tony Robinson is probably best known to most people (over the age of 40 at least) for playing the character of ‘Baldrick’, alongside Rowan Atkinson, in the Blackadder series of brilliant comedy series in the 1980s. However, since then, he has carved out a niche for himself presenting numerous Time Team programmes about archaeology. They are almost invariably excellent and the latest programme – all about a tsunami that hit the East coast of Britain about eight thousand years ago – was broadcast in the UK last night.
I am very pleased to discover that the broadcaster, Channel 4 Television, has uploaded the programme to YouTube and, therefore, I have embedded the video at the end of this post. I cannot recommend watching it highly enough but, if you need some encouragement, please allow me to summarise its content:
Tony Robinson open’s the programme from a helicopter above Flamborough Head in North Yorkshire and – in the course of the programme – visits places up and down the East Coast of England and Scotland. Using computer generated animation, the programme reveals that the tsunami was caused by an enormous underwater landslide on the edge of the continental shelf off the coast of Norway.
The programme also presents an amazing array of artefacts recovered from a site in North Yorkshire, called Star Carr, where peat has preserved all manner of objects – bone, wood, leather, etc – thereby painting a picture of a much more sophisticated and stable society in what is known, in anthropological terms, as the Mesolithic era.
With the help of experts, Robinson demonstrates how, unlike people in the Iron Age who tended (for reasons that will become clear) to live on hill-tops, people in the Mesolithic era lived next to rivers. Far from being hunter-gatherers, they lived in settled communities and, with the exception of fish, allowed their food to come to them. However, in terms of geography, the programme focussed on the fact, because sea level was much lower at the time, the UK was connected to Europe (from Denmark all the way round to Brittany in the northwest of France).
Probably the most fascinating artefacts presented in the programme are those that look very similar to things that, in modern times, early European explorers of Siberia found local Shamen using in their religious ceremonies. However, so as to encourage you to watch the video, I will not say any more than that!
So then, you may well be thinking, what has this got to do with concern for the environment and/or climate change? Well, having watched the programme, I was left feeling that Robinson had, to use a soccer-based analogy, dribbled the football up to an open goal and then, almost inexplicably, managed to fail to score a goal. It left me feeling that, although Robinson clearly accepts that the Earth’s climate has changed in the past, he does not believe that humans are the main driver of change today. If he did, he would not have closed the programme by suggesting that we might be heading for another Ice Age!
To me, this was completely at odds with all of the facts about palaeoclimatic changes presented in the programme:
— Sea Level was120m lower than it is today at the end of the last Ice Age (about 12k years ago).
— The tsunami probably resulted in a decision by humans not to live near sea level about 8k years ago.
— The sudden emptying of the enormous, North American, Lake Agassiz about the same time, which resulted in the UK being separated from Europe by the current expanses of water known as the North Sea and the English Channel.
I am quite sure that I cannot have been the only person to watch all this and think: “Holy Cow! We are already in an inter-glacial warm period and we are now moving into temperature conditions not seen since Antarctica first became glaciated in the Eocene era (35 million years ago)”. Therefore, although it may take hundreds of years, very significant sea level rise is now inevitable (because Eocene-like levels of atmospheric CO2 are now driving the Earth back towards Eocene-like temperatures).
As I said, the one conclusion I did not reach was: “Oh well, change happens. Ice Ages come and go and, if sea level drops again, travel to Europe will be much easier!”
Tony Robinson, yes, I am talking to you now! You seriously need to wake up! There will never be another Ice Age unless or until humans become extinct. Even if the Earth was to suddenly start to cool down (i.e. because we now understand why it has happened repeatedly in the past million years this is not expected to happen for many thousands of years), if humans were lucky enough to still be around, all they would have to do to stop this happening is release some of the CO2 they had managed to remove from the atmosphere (and buried underground like nuclear waste).
Despite my frustration at all of this, I would, as I said, heartily recommend that you invest the time in watching the video.