Sat, Dec 02, 2017 - Page 9 News List

The US might soon lose a lot of its history to rising oceans

New research shows that by the end of this century an increase in sea level will threaten the White House and other culturally significant places in the US

By Oliver Milman  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK CITY

Large tracts of the US’ east coast heritage are at risk from being wiped out by rising oceans that are set to threaten thousands of archaeological and historic sites, according to new research.

Even a modest increase in sea level will imperil much of the southeastern US’ heritage by the end of the century, researchers found, with a 1m increase threatening 13,000 sites.

Thousands more areas will be in danger as the seas continue to climb in the years beyond this, forcing the potential relocation of the White House and Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and inundation of historic touchstones such as the Kennedy Space Center and St Augustine, Florida, which lays claim to being the oldest city in the US.

“There are going to be a lot of cultural sites lost and the record of humanity’s history will be put at risk. Some sites will be destroyed; some buried in marshes. We might be able to relocate some. In some places it will be devastating. We need to properly understand the magnitude of this,” said David Anderson, a University of Tennessee anthropologist who led the published research.

Threatened areas, including locations on the national register of historic places, include Native American sites that date back more than 10,000 years, as well as early colonial settlements such as Jamestown, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Researchers pinpointed known sites using topographical data and analyzed how they would fare in various sea level rise scenarios.

Florida, which has a southern portion particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, has the most sites in danger from a 1m rise, followed by Louisiana and Virginia.

A 1m sea level rise by 2100 could prove optimistic, with several studies showing the increase could be much greater. Scientists have warned that the breakup of the Antarctic ice sheet could significantly fuel sea level rise, pushing the global increase to about 1.8m by 2100.

The latest US government estimate predicts a worldwide increase of 0.3m to 1.2m by 2100, although a 2.4m rise cannot be ruled out it said.

The eastern seaboard of the US is at particular risk, with water infringing on the coast in greater volumes than the global average. The problem is compounded by areas of the coast, such as in New Jersey and Virginia, gradually subsiding due to a long-term geological hangover from a vast ice sheet that once covered much of North America.

Sea level rise is expected to displace millions of people from the US coasts over the coming decades, with Anderson saying that this will create further damage to heritage sites as people move inland.

There is still some uncertainty over the exact timescale involved in the changes — it might take several hundred years for some coastal places to be at risk — leading to hopes that coastlines can be adapted in time in order to protect vital infrastructure and sacred sites, he said, adding that losses appear inevitable.

“Putting a sea wall around the whole of the US won’t be an easy thing to do and would cause a lot of damage elsewhere. We are going to have to do a lot of planning as a civilization in the next 50 to 100 years and we have to take heritage into account,” Anderson said.

Coastal heritage has been lost by previous fluctuations in sea level rise and tough decisions will need to be made as to what to protect in the future, said Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, who was not involved in the study.

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