Historic sites may be history, threatened by climate change

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Collapsed trenches of Sandfly Key in the Ten Thousand Islands are examples of damages to the prehistoric site, according to a report released in Washington on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the University of South Florida Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies

Madison Fantozzi
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

This story published in Naples Daily News. 

WASHINGTON – The Washington Monument and Statue of Liberty both closed for repairs after natural disasters in recent years, but the threat to iconic landmarks and historic sites is far from over.

In a report it released Tuesday, the Union of Concerned Scientists has declared a “race against time” for archaeologists studying Florida’s historic sites, including prehistoric shell structures such as the Ten Thousand Islands.

The threats include sea level rise, flooding and wildfires. The report attributes these to human-induced climate change, complementing the National Climate Assessment released earlier this month.

The report says NASA Kennedy Space Center and the historic town of St. Augustine, and its Lincolnville Historic District, Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Mose, are particularly threatened by rising seas. Prehistoric shell structures including Turtle Mound in Canaveral National Seashore and Ten Thousand Islands are also at risk.

“These national landmarks are symbols that are important to our understanding as Americans of our history and cultural heritage,” Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, said.

The mounds of oyster and clam shells along the Gulf of Mexico that sit partly within Everglades National Park were home to indigenous Floridians more than 4,000 years ago.

While shell mounds are common along U.S. coastlines, Ten Thousand Islands is one of the largest and most complex. The region boasts features including ridges, plazas, canals and water courts.

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma caused major damage to the site. Today, the islands are threatened by worsening erosion and storm damage.

“When I watch an archaeological site that’s 4,000 years old wash away after staying intact all that time, I can’t help but recognize that what we’re seeing today is changing climate conditions in real time,” Anastasia Steffen, an archaeologist at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico, said.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientist worry that the sites, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, may be lost in the coming decades.

The report notes Florida’s 8 to 9 inches of sea-level rise in the last 100 years and a projected 9- to 24-inch rise by 2060. Combined with extreme rainfall and accompanying storm surges, which are also predicted to increase, the report projects a growing threat to not only the Ten Thousand Islands but also to several sites across the state.

The report cites threats to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; towns such as Charleston, S.C., and Jamestown, Va., and NASA sites in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, California and Virginia.

“The risks are growing, the vulnerability is great, but what our report shows is what’s already happening around the country,” Adam Markham, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ director of climate impacts, said.

He said the National Climate Assessment, while comprehensive, does not focus on historic sites.

NASA’s planning and development office said rising sea levels are the largest threat to the Kennedy Space Center’s operations. Dunes near the launch pads are regularly breached during storms.

As St. Augustine approaches its 450th anniversary in 2015, the city faces storm surges and flooding that could undermine the aging and undersized infrastructure of its historic buildings.

Jeffrey Altschul, president of the Society for American Archaeology, called seawalls an expensive, dubious solution.

“It’s politically attractive to take the ‘save our lighthouse’ approach,” he said. “But we need to start a new conversation: What do we want to save, what sites embody the core cultural values that will diminish us as a nation if we lose them, and what are we willing to let go?”

Erosion, storm damage and rising seas have already collapsed the banks of tidal creeks at Sandfly Key in the Ten Thousand Islands Archeological District of Everglades National Park.

While  Sen. Marco Rubio R-Fla. has expressed skepticism, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., took an opposite stance.

“The two biggest wildfires in history were in the last five years,” he said. “These events are wiping archaeological sites off the map. This is troubling for a state that cares deeply about its identity and cultural connection. That’s just one state, think about all the states with shorelines and what is being experienced in our coastal states.”

Reach reporter Madison Fantozzi at madison.fantozzi@scripps.com or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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