Climate Change is Putting Iconic Historic Sites and National Parks at Growing Risk

May 20, 2014
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, like most people in America, my thoughts usually begin to turn to summer vacation. But this year it’s different. I’m pre-occupied with the alarming threat climate change impacts — especially wildfires and coastal flooding — poses to some of our most important and iconic historic sites and national parks.

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The Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors for more than eight months while repairs were undertaken after floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge damaged the island’s infrastructure, including walkways, jetties, buildings, and utilities. Photo: Kevin Daley/NPS

From Ellis Island to the Everglades, and from sea to rising sea, many of the United States’ most iconic landmarks and historic sites – places that will be in millions of people’s travel plans this summer – are at growing risk.

In fact, according to the findings of a major new report from UCS – National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods and Wildfires are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites – a remarkable number of the places where American history was made are highly vulnerable to climate change.

Sea level rise is washing away archaeological treasures

As Memorial Day parades kick off around the country, coastal erosion exacerbated by rapidly rising sea levels will continue to eat away at our national heritage.

In communities across the country on Memorial Day, Americans will remember and honor the sacrifices previous generations made at sites such as Yorktown battlefield and Fort Monroe in Virginia, Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida — all places that are already being impacted by climate change.

The case studies in National Landmarks at Risk vividly illustrate an urgent problem. Some of the sites face the risk of severe damage or even eventual loss. Others are just now seeing the first signs of damage, or are experiencing disruptions to access and services that are likely to become worse, more frequent, or both. All provide a wake-up call.

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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse before it was moved by the National Park Service in 1999 to prevent it being claimed by the sea as a result of coastal erosion and accelerating sea level rise. Photo: U.S. Air Force

Coastal erosion is already causing severe damage to precious archaeological sites around the U.S. coast, including in Alaska, California, Florida, and Virginia, and washing away irreplaceable cultural resources that chronicle some of the earliest people in the Americas.

Early Hawaiian sacred sites and prehistoric stone fish-traps on the west coast of the Big Island are under threat from sea level rise. So are ancient shell mounds among the sprawling keys and wetlands of southwestern Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, that are helping archaeologists understand the story of Native Americans before Spanish colonists arrived in the early years of the 16th century.

Flooding and wildfires are putting historic districts and cultural heritage at risk

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Faneuil Hall in Boston around 1921, when the city first began recording high tide levels. The so-called “Cradle of Liberty”, where Samuel Adams rallied citizens to the revolutionary cause is increasingly at risk of tidal flooding and storm surge. Photo: Leon H. Abdalian/Boston Public Library

Downtown historic districts including Boston’s pre-revolutionary Long Wharf and the Blackstone Block district, St. Augustine Florida’s Lincolnville district, and antebellum Charleston, South Carolina, all face the prospect of damage from flooding and storm surges worsened by sea level rise.

Annapolis, Maryland’s Colonial Historic District, home to the largest collection of 18th century buildings in America, already experiences frequent nuisance flooding with high tides, but now the city is preparing for the inevitability of another major storm like Hurricane Isabel, which caused massive flooding in the historic City Dock area in 2003. The adjacent U.S. Naval Academy, a national historic landmark famous for its Beaux Arts campus buildings is also at risk: it sustained $120 million in damage from Isabel.

Worsening wildfires in the West are damaging ancient pueblo remains, archaeological sites, and petroglyphs in many protected areas, including Mesa Verde National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Colorado and Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

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The massive Las Conchas fire in 2011 ravaged archaeological sites in Bandelier National Monument, such as these approximately 700-year-old remains of a small pueblo. Extreme temperatures damaged masonry and artifacts and the loss of vegetation is leading to site damage from erosion. Photo: Rory Gauthier/NPS

According to the National Climate Assessment (NCA), hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change have been the primary driving factor behind the increasing area burned by large wildfires in the western United States. There, the length of the wildfire season increased by more than two months during the period from 1970 to 2012. The devastating flash floods that often follow massive wildfires when land has been denuded of trees and vegetation, are now a growing risk to archaeological resources in the Southwest. According to the NCA, there is a strong trend towards increasing frequency of extreme rainfall events nationwide.

Climate impacts affecting national parks and NASA facilities

A recent scientific analysis shows that at least 85 national park units, many of them with cultural resources at risk, have already recorded changes directly attributable to climate change. Many more have seen consequences such as increases in winter temperature, decreased snowpack, and shifts in precipitation that are consistent with climate change.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has said “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.”

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The wind tunnel at Langley Research Center in Virginia in 1938. Opened in 1917, just a few years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight civilian flight, Langley played a pivotal role in aeronautical research and the space race but is now vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo: NASA.

But it’s not just archaeological sites and old historic buildings that are at risk. Many more modern historic sites that help tell the story of the United States are also at risk. For example, multiple NASA sites that played a key role in the history of space exploration are threatened by sea level rise, storm surge, and stronger North Atlantic hurricanes.

In Virginia, both the Langley Research Center (opened as the nation’s first civilian flight laboratory in 1917, just a few years after the Wright Brothers made their first historic flight) and Wallops Flight Facility, the site of more than 16,000 rocket launches, are affected.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the site of Apollo and space shuttle missions, storm surges regularly breach the dunes near the launch pads and NASA itself has said that rising sea levels are the biggest threat to the center’s continuing operations.

An urgent response needed

If UCS’s new report, Landmarks at Risk is sounding the alarm bell, then what must be done to respond? Given the scale of the problem and the cultural value of the places at risk, it is not enough merely to plan for change and expect to adapt. We must begin now to prepare our most vulnerable landmarks to face worsening climate impacts; climate resilience must become a national priority; and we must allocate the necessary resources.

We must also work to minimize the risks by quickly reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change if we want to ensure that our most treasured monuments and iconic historic sites can remain in the summer travel plans of Americans for generations to come.