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

, , Deputy director, Climate & Energy | May 20, 2014, 1:00 am EDT
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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.


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.


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

Faneuil hall c 1920

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.

Bandelier burned Rory Gauthier

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.”


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.

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  • Rob Hayden

    The junk science that comes out of UCS is truly laughable. Did you notice that the article contained not one statistic about the height of the oceans. What was the level 75 years ago compared to now? Why do both of the earth’s ice caps have record amounts of ice? Carbon generation by itself is not a problem. In addition to the inability of scientists to show any connection between carbon in the air and temperature, they can’t measure the actual carbon levels. If carbon is so bad, why don’t they tell us the amount in the air every day? The generation of carbon is meaningless unless you also determine the absorbtion of it, and then the remaining balance. They never tell us that. The whole global cooling, global warming, climate change, weather intensity industry is a hoax.

    • Even people who question or outright reject scientists’ consensus about human-induced climate change should respect a fact about low-lying, ocean-facing Fort Monroe, one of the national treasures listed in the UCS report–the one discussed in my earlier comment. It’s this: politicians of both parties are planning to build condos there, even though Hurricane Isabel brought more than a tenth of a billion dollars’ worth of damage there in 2003. Climate change or no climate change, it’s folly to tempt Mother Nature with this condo project that will, in any case, delete sense of place at a national treasure.

      • Rob H.

        Hey Steve,
        When you use scientists and consensus in the same sentence, you contradict yourself. Consensus is not part of the scientific process. If so much of the ice caps have melted already, why aren’t they selling their houses in Malibu … cheaply?

    • mark neal

      Yo Rob.
      Why do you imagine that we can continually pump toxic crap into the atmosphere and get away with it?
      Even a cursory glance at physics you tell you that you can’t.

  • Thanks for all of this fine work, UCS.

    But please let me correct something: the threatened low-lying, ocean-facing historic landscape at Fort Monroe, Virginia, is not just a moated stone citadel. It’s a 570-acre peninsula–a historic landscape _containing_ a moated stone citadel. Almost all of that peninsula was designated a national historic landmark a half-century ago.

    Much later, in 2011, politicians of both parties engineered a split national monument on the landscape. The split monument includes the moated stone fortress and some undevelopable land.

    And this leads to the second threat to the landscape, this threat coming from politicians, not Mother Nature–but nevertheless complementing hers.

    Despite the ludicrousness of building condos on the ocean-facing side of the peninsula–an action that would ruin the sense of place–condos are the plan. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot warns that this will “squander” the national treasure. The National Parks Conservation Association and others have expressed much the same worry.

    So what we have here is not just a sea-rise-threatened national treasure, but a national treasure where developer-kowtowing politicians are actively planning to multiply the folly of coastal overdevelopment while at the same time subtracting from national civic memory.

    The problem can be seen at a glance at the map-and-photo illustration at .


    • I neglected in my comment above to make this key point: Almost everybody except politicians and developers wants to see the two parts of the split Fort Monroe National Monument connected, unifying it. That becomes impossible if residences are built in the huge gap–condos that would taunt Mother Nature, asking for more hurricane damage and inundation.

      Unification would moot the following troubling analogy: to build condos in the shadow of the moated stone citadel, deleting Fort Monroe’s four-century-old Chesapeake Bay sense of place, would call to mind the odious idea of building houses on the Monticello hillsides by Thomas Jefferson’s house.

      Also: Here’s some information about the views of Wetlands Watch concerning overdevelopment at Fort Monroe (meaning the entire historic landscape, not just the moated stone citadel within it):

      On October 22, representing Wetlands Watch, Skip Stiles sent a letter to the Fort Monroe Authority. Stiles is a frequent guest on the noontime talk show “HearSay” on Norfolk’s NPR affiliate–the show where Mr. Markham was heard earlier today. The letter is not online, but I can forward a PDF copy. Here’s the key excerpt: “The master plan envisions significant new residential development investments on an increasingly fragile and potentially dangerous landscape but does not consider the long-term costs/benefits of that investment over the coming decades.”

      Mr. Stiles has long opposed new residential construction at Fort Monroe. A couple of years ago I called in to “HearSay” to ask him about it. He said that because of sea rise, they shouldn’t build anything more substantial than a picnic shelter.

      He now has a blog posting on his organization’s site: . It mentions that a Virginian-Pilot editorial cited his organization’s opposition to overdevelopment at Fort Monroe, and then adds, “We continue to be the only grassroots environmental group working at the local level in opposition to … no other way to put it–‘stupid development proposals.'”

      Fort Monroe is not just a textbook case for the threat of sea rise. It’s also a national textbook case of the continuing folly of challenging Mother Nature by building, post-Sandy, on low-lying, ocean-facing waterfront–and, to boot, the folly includes deletion of sense of place at a national treasure.

      Surely at some point the national media will figure out that this story needs telling nationally.