Scientists Are Racing to Unearth the Secrets of an Ancient Underwater World

ruins of the atlantis civilization underwater ruins
We’re Ready To Explore Lost Undersea CivilizationsStockByM - Getty Images
  • Around 8,000 years ago, many civilizations thrived on plains that are now submerged by the North and Baltic seas.

  • Now, scientists from a variety of northern European research institutions are undergoing a major study to analyze these regions and find evidence of these past civilizations.

  • Time is of the essence, as many of the regions scientists hope to probe are also prime real estate for growing wind farm installations that are needed to combat rising sea levels in this era.

Around 8,000 to 6,000 BCE, the North and Baltic seas... weren’t seas at all. Instead, they were vast plains that were home to ancient human civilizations. But as the curtain drew to a close on the last Ice Age, water levels rose and inundated these low-lying areas, wiping away any trace of prospering civilizations. Well—almost any trace.

The University of Bradford’s Submerged Landscapes Research Centre in the U.K., TNO Geological Survey of the Netherlands, Flanders Marine Institute, and the University of York will soon explore these long-lost civilizations as part of a research collaboration known as SUBNORDICA. One of the ancient lands the project aims to explore is Doggerland, which is thought to have thrived in North Sea region some 8,200 years ago.

“Twenty-thousand years ago, the global sea level was 130 metres lower than at present. With progressive global warming and sea-level rise, unique landscapes, home to human societies for millennia, disappeared,” Vincent Gaffney, leader of the Submerged Landscapes Research Centre, said in a press statement. “We know almost nothing about the people who lived on these great plains. As Europe and the world approaches net zero, development of the coastal shelves is now a strategic priority. SUBNORDICA will use the latest technologies to explore these lands and support sustainable development.”

Among those technologies will be advanced seabed mapping and computer simulation of lost settlements, as well as additional AI tools, seismic and acoustic surveys, and boreholes. In March, the University of Bradford announced its plan to analyze data gathered from magnetometer surveys intended for the environmental impact assessment of future green energy initiatives. University researchers say magnetic fields can help identify “peat-forming areas…or where erosion has occurred, for example in river channels.”

And time is of the essence for investigating these water-logged civilizations. Thousands of years ago, an additional 7.7 million square miles were above water, and of that portion, 1.16 million square miles lay along Europe’s existing coastline. Researchers describe the region as “the most attractive land for prehistoric settlement anywhere in the continent.”

Today, this land largely makes up the coastal shelf that is currently under development as North Sea nations install offshore wind farms to combat climate change. This vast expansion of green energy infrastructure could limit scientific access to these areas, so projects like SUBNORDICA are rushing to investigate the area before it’s too late.

“SUBNORDICA will investigate the significance of ancient coastlines and its resources for humans. Through diving surveys in Aarhus Bay [in Denmark] we will determine how widespread coastal settlements were compared to those in the interior and determine how marine resources were exploited 9000 to 8500 years ago,” Peter Moe Astrup, underwater archaeologist at Denmark’s Moesgaard Museum, said in a press statement. “This knowledge will then be used to target archaeological investigations in less accessible areas.”

As nations fight against rising seas—a fight that for some North Sea countries never truly ended—scientists are rushing to discover what happened to these prehistoric humans who similarly experienced a rise in temperature that threatened, and eventually vanquished, their civilizations.

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