Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) held a briefing highlighting the risks climate change poses to landmark historic sites around the United States. This briefing unveiled a new report from UCS which highlights climate threats to the nation’s iconic landmarks and historic sites, and details steps being taken to protect these national treasures. The report includes 30 at-risk sites, including places where the “first Americans” lived, the Spaniards ruled, English colonists landed, slavery rose and fell, and gold prospectors struck it rich. Some of the sites also commemorate more modern “firsts,” such as the race to put the first man on the moon.

See our "Landmarks at Risk" infographic

 

For the first time in its history, the Society for American Archaeology is calling attention to the damage climate change is causing endangered archaeological sites. Sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains and larger wildfires are damaging archaeological sites, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes across the nation. Cultural resource managers already are integrating resiliency and adaptation measures into their planning process, to protect these sites from climate change impacts.

From Mesa Verde to the Statue of Liberty and even modern NASA launch sites, these sites tell the compelling story of human occupation and history in the United States, a history that is increasingly threatened by climate change. A recent National Park Service analysis shows that 96 percent of its land is in areas of observed global warming over the past century. Each year, millions of visitors frequent NPS and other historic sites, creating a large impact on local economies. For example, Hurricane Sandy alone caused an estimated $77 million in damages to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors for eight months, and the storm cost a local ferry operator 80 percent of its revenue, forcing the operator to lay off 75 percent of its workforce.

  • Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), discussed the threats that increasingly intense and frequent forest fires represent to the natural, cultural, and historical resources of New Mexico.
  • He noted that changes in weather, precipitation and wind patterns over the last 20 years in New Mexico have been marked, and risk wiping the states numerous archeological sites off the map.
  • Adam Markham, Director of Climate Impacts, Union of Concerned Scientists, described the results of the report National Landmarks at Risk that was unveiled at the briefing by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
  • The report features a series of 17 case studies of National Parks, Landmarks and Archeological sites that are at risk due to the impacts of rising sea levels, coastal flooding, heavy rains and larger wildfires.
  • The report is “only the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the damage climate change may cause to our national landmarks, but it provides an overview of the threats we are facing.
  • The report calls for the slowing of climate impacts to reduce threats to these national monuments, well as the allocation of resources to make adaptation of these areas a national priority.
  • Dr. Jeffrey Altschul, the President of the Society for American Archaeology, focused on the importance of not only protecting archaeological sites from climate change, but also of using these sites as a model for what works and what doesn’t when it comes to human adaption to a changing climate.
  • Currently, protecting historic sites from climate change has been done one site at a time, in a “save my lighthouse approach,” which will over time become cost prohibitive. There must be a shift in thinking, in which we as a nation assess what historical sites and landmarks we want to save and can be saved.
  • Technological advances are not our only tool to solve the challenge of climate change. Information we have about humanity’s responses to past climate change, gathered through archaeological research, can also be used to determine the best way to deal with these challenges.
  • Dr. Anastasia Steffen, Archaeologist, Valles Caldera National Preserve (NM), discussed the effects that increasingly frequent and serious forest fires have had on the Southwest, and in particular on two parks, Mesa Verde National Park and Bandelier National Park.
  • Mesa Verde National Park has experienced four large wildfires that have burned more than half the park between the years 1996-2003, and which have damaged many of the parks archeological sites (which had remained unscathed for thousands of years previously).
  • Bandelier National Park has burned three times in the last two decades, which has impacted more than 50 percent of the park’s land and more than 1,000 archeological sites. The most devastating of these fires was the 2011 Las Conchas fire, which burned so fast and hot it destroyed 43,000 acres in just 14 hours.
  • These fires are not only dangerous and destructive, but also costly. Tools are being developed that will help plan prescribed fires, to mitigate their severity, as well as help restore ecosystems to make them less susceptible to fires.
  • Walter Dasheno, former Governor of the Santa Clara Pueblo, Rio Arriba Country (NM), talked about the devastating effects that forest fires have had on the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe, which is located in the Bandelier region.
  • The fires have destroyed the vegetation in the area, which then led to massive flooding when the rainy season occurred a few months later.
  • Dasheno called for the immediate allocation of appropriations to prevent fires, work to reduce the severity of the fires that do occur, as well as for action to create an environmental resiliency fund.
  • Lisa Craig, Chief of Historic Preservation, Annapolis (MD), spoke of what the town of Annapolis, which is directly threatened by rising sea levels, is doing to mitigate and adapt to rising sea levels.
  • Annapolis is home to important and historical landmarks, including many colonial buildings and the Naval Academy, all of which are threatened by rising sea levels and the increased frequency of severe storms along the East Coast.
  • Annapolis has adapted FEMA guidelines for mitigating flooding, which has involved identifying the hazards facing Annapolis, setting mitigation priorities for the city and then implementing the mitigation plan. Annapolis is one of the first cities in the country to have put this flood plan to use and hopes to serve as an example for the rest of the country.
  • The adoption of this flood plan will rely on the action of community members and building owners in Annapolis, who will need to invest in mitigation tools. The city will be incentivizing these actions through tax credits and other initiatives.
  • Alan Spears, Historian and Director of Cultural Resources, National Parks Conservation Association, discussed the importance of National Parks as a voice for the nation and its history, particularly within the African American community.
  • Two national landmarks vital to African American history, the Harriet Tubman National Monument and the Ft. Monroe National Monument, are threatened by rising sea levels.
  • Spears spoke of the importance of the National Parks Service and the National Parks Conservation working together to protect these national resources by mitigating the adverse effects of climate change. He also highlighted that it is necessary to decide what landmarks and parks are most important to protect and preserve for future generations, because we cannot save everything.

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