Birthplace of American Democracy Faces Threat from Accelerating Sea Level Rise

June 17, 2013 | 11:18 am
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

The National Park Service is having to take urgent action to protect Jamestown — the birthplace of representative government in America — from accelerating sea level rise. When I visited a few weeks ago, huge boulders were being lifted from barges on the James River and placed along the shoreline to raise revetments that guard the Colonial Parkway, which connects Jamestown and Yorktown, from damaging erosion, storm surge, and flooding.

National Park Service resource specialist, Dorothy Geyer, in front of a revetment at Indian Field Creek on Colonial Parkway, Virginia. Photo: Adam markham

National Park Service natural resource specialist, Dorothy Geyer, in front of a revetment at Indian Field Creek on Colonial Parkway, Virginia. Photo: Adam Markham

Hurricane damage provides a wake-up call

There have been many warning signs over the years. When Hurricane Isabel hit Jamestown in 2003 it was a wake-up call for the Park Service. Storm waters from the James River surged over the century-old sea wall and filled a basement storing hundreds of thousands of priceless artifacts that together tell the story of America’s founding, submerging them in filthy, brackish water.

When I toured the site with Dorothy Geyer, a Park Service natural resource specialist, she told me that restoring the damage took years and cost millions of dollars. Today, the artifacts are back on Jamestown Island and the storage buildings have been raised, but the risk of damage from severe storms still remains.

A 400-year history of extreme weather impacts

That enhanced sea level rise and severe storms pose a threat to the site of America’s first permanent colonial settlement should come as no surprise. Weather extremes have been part of the Jamestown story since the colonists of the Virginia Company of London landed there in 1607. Archaeologists believe that by the time the would-be settlers came ashore, natural sea level rise caused by land subsidence had already driven the local Powhatan Indians from year-round occupation of the island.

Erosion due to tides and waves is a constant issue on the island and the site. Today sea levels at Jamestown are at least three feet higher than when the colonists first landed more than 400 years ago.  The original settlement was long thought to have been swallowed by the James River until a team of archaeologists led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia discovered the remains of the fort in 1996. According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) the current rate of sea level rise is about 1.5 feet per century and it is speeding up because of global warming.

Preservation Virginia Archaeological dig at Historic Jamestown. Photo: Adam Markham

Preservation Virginia Archaeological dig at Historic Jamestown. Photo: Adam Markham

Even in its earliest days, Jamestown suffered the consequences of severe storms and extreme weather. In August 1609, a fleet of ships bringing supplies, new settlers, and a new governor to Jamestown was hit by a “most terrible and vehement storm” near Bermuda. One ship sank, and the flagship, carrying Sir Thomas Gates, was stranded on Bermuda for months – providing Shakespeare with the inspiration for “The Tempest” and his first literary brush with the New World.

Scientists have recently discovered that the  “starving time” from 1607 to 1610 — when 80 percent of the original colonists died — coincided with the most severe drought experienced in tidewater Virginia for 800 years. The drought would have radically reduced the ability of settlers and Indians alike to grow food and reduced the availability and quality of freshwater.

National parks under threat

The rediscovered Jamestown today is part of the Historic Triangle, which includes Colonial Williamsburg and the revolutionary battlefield of Yorktown, as well as many pre-colonial and Civil War archaeological remains. Jamestown, Yorktown, and the parkway together form Colonial National Historical Park, and they are likely soon to be joined by Fort Monroe, designated a National Monument by President Obama in 2011. Fort Monroe was the landing site for the first Africans who were traded to the settlers at Jamestown in 1619, laying the foundation for the institution of slavery, which took root in the colony during the subsequent decades. The current fort, built after the War of 1812, sits on a barrier island and like the three existing National Park units is highly vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge.


Many coastal views close to Jamestown remain similar to those the first settlers must have seen when they landed in 1607. Photo: Adam Markham

Traveling back from Jamestown along Colonial Parkway with Dorothy was instructive. Where previously I had seen merely a scenic road winding through woods and emerging for long stretches along the shore with vistas along the James River, she described a roadway at serious risk from accelerating sea level rise. Dorothy told me of flooded battlefield cemeteries, of washed out culverts, and of coastal bluffs eroded in ferocious storms.

Climate solutions needed to save historic site

To my mind, there’s no more powerful way to connect with history than to visit the places where it happened. Today, the closest we or our children can get to the extraordinary chapter in our nation’s history that began at Jamestown is to wander the paths of the same island, walk where they walked, and try to see the views of the James River with their eyes. Perhaps, if we are lucky, we’ll be there when one of the archaeologists working on site pulls a pig’s jaw bone or a clay pipe from a pit dug in the 17th Century soil layers – a direct, physical connection to the past.

For 400 years the story of Jamestown has been one of resilience. The tenacity and perseverance of the settlers eventually paid off. The question now is whether we can move the democracy they helped create to take actions to slow climate change before the rising river swallows Jamestown once and for all.