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‘From sea to rising sea,’ climate change is threatening our historic landmarks

“National Landmarks at Risk” focuses on 30 “case studies” in 13 of the lower 48 states plus Alaska and Hawaii.

The Statue of Liberty monument in New York harbor was inundated by Hurricane Sandy and its storm surges; the area was closed for extensive repairs.

Climate change not only threatens Americans’ future but also profoundly imperils their history, according to a new report that claims to be the first survey of global warming’s probable impact on U.S. monuments, landmarks and historic sites.

Published on Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “National Landmarks at Risks” makes the case that

Many of the United States’ iconic landmarks and heritage sites are at risk as never before. Sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and more frequent large wildfires are damaging archaeological resources, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes across the nation.

From sea to rising sea, a remarkable number of the places where American history was made are already under threat. The geographic and cultural quilt that tells the American story is fraying at the edges — and even beginning to be pulled apart — by the impacts of climate change.

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  • Much of downtown Boston’s historic core, including the Long Wharf and Faneuil Hall, are at special risk from rising sea levels in a city that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has ranked No. 8 worldwide in terms of expected economic losses to severe flooding between now and mid-century.
  • Two of the nation’s oldest settlements by Europeans — Jamestown in Virginia and St. Augustine in Florida — sit particularly close to the rising tides. Archaeologists at Jamestown, our first permanent English colony, are considering whether the risk is sufficient to justify removing artifacts to safety, rather than continuing to leave them in place; at St. Augustine, established by Spaniards, permanent inundation of some historic districts is considered likely, the main question being whether it happens at the middle or end of the century.
  • In coastal Alaska, where permafrost loss and diminished sea ice are leading to unprecedented erosion, two historic sites on Kotzebue Sound are already “losing irreplaceable archaeological remains to worsening coastal erosion. The parks contain some of the most important concentrations of archaeological sites and artifacts documenting the first human migration to North America via the Bering Land Bridge.”

Turning the tables on patriotism

The report’s claim to orginality of focus seems plausible to me; I can’t think of an earlier example. And given the politicization and polarization of this nation’s long-running argument over climate change — in which proposals for meaningful preventive responses are routinely derided as a form of treason against the American economy and living standard — it is kind of surprising that nobody has thought to do such a patriotically minded assessment before now.

And even this effort falls short of exhaustive. It is framed not as a “comprehensive analysis of climate change threats to all of the United States’ historic places, monuments and memorials, but rather a selection of case studies that vividly illustrate an urgent problem.”

The stories were chosen because the science behind the risks they face is robust, and because together they shine a spotlight on the different kinds of climate impacts already affecting the United States’ cultural heritage.

All of the case studies in this report draw on observations and impacts that are either consistent with, or attributable to, human-induced climate change based on multiple lines of scientific evidence. Some of the sites face the risk of severe damage or even eventual loss. Other case studies describe sites that are just now seeing the first signs of damage …

All provide a wake-up call: as the impacts of climate change continue, we must make hard choices now and take urgent steps to protect these sites and reduce the risks.

Recent damage surveyed

Because of its focus on flooding amplified by sea-level rise and the changing pattern of wildfire in the American West, the report does not deal with impacts in the Midwest; rather, it focuses on 30 “case studies” in 13 of the lower 48 states plus Alaska and Hawaii.

More examples, drawing now on the evidence and impacts of recent extreme-weather events:

  • The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island monuments in New York harbor, which has already seen sea level rise by a foot over the last century, were sufficiently inundated by Hurricane Sandy and its storm surges that both were closed for extensive repairs — including raising the electrical system on Liberty Island 20 feet above ground to keep it dry in the surges ahead.
  • The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida, where storm surges now regularly breach sand dunes near the launch pads that sent Americans to the moon and became, with the shuttle program, our first spaceport.
  • The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, damaged to the tune of $210 million by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
  • Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, where abnormally large wildfires and flooding pose a threat to the pueblos and artifacts left by some of the continent’s first humans more than 10,000 years ago. The same threat faces places like Groveland, California, a town from the Gold Rush days that was damaged by last summer’s Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park.

Given the scope of adaptation measures that the changing climate will require, it’s easy to image some folks greeting the UCS report with a grimace, a shrug and a resigned acceptance that preserving the treasures left us by our ancestors must come second to ensuring the survival of our descendants.

Threats to the living, too

But, of course, the changing climate threatens both. Returning now to Kotzebue Sound and the artifacts left by humans crossing the Bering land bridge:

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has concluded that out of more than 200 native Alaskan villages, 85 percent are already being affected by erosion and flooding and that 31 are under imminent threat. Twelve of these communities have decided to completely relocate.

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One such community is Kivalina, a small village just north of Cape Krusenstern. Winter storms are removing an average of up to 35 feet of Kivalina’s shoreline annually; however, in 2005, the town lost 70 feet from the beach to a single massive storm.

The residents of Kivalina hunt walrus, seal, caribou, and fish, and it is the only village in the region that still hunts bowhead whales, at least in principle — no bowheads have been taken in more than a decade, and locals blame the changed ice conditions. Cost estimates for moving the community of Kivalina to a new and safer location are about $100 million.

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The full text of “National Landmarks at Risk,” with terrific photography, maps and graphics, can be accessed here.