Sea-Level Rise Could Threaten Thousands Of U.S. Historical Sites By End Of 21st Century

More than 13,000 archeological and historical sites might end up submerged or wiped out if sea levels continue rising as expected.

Sea-Level Rise Could Threaten Thousands Of U.S. Historical Sites By End Of 21st Century
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More than 13,000 archeological and historical sites might end up submerged or wiped out if sea levels continue rising as expected.

The ongoing problem of sea-level rise could end up threatening over 13,000 archaeological and historical sites in the southeastern United States, assuming global warming continues to contribute to changes in the world’s sea levels.

According to a report from Live Science, several prominent attractions in the southeastern U.S. are among the thousands of sites that could be affected by rising sea levels within the century. These include Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, which serves as the launch site for NASA’s human spaceflight missions, North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is the country’s tallest brick lighthouse, and Jamestown, Virginia, which is the Americas’ oldest permanent English settlement. The Americas’ two oldest continuously occupied European settlements, Charleston, South Carolina and St. Augustine, Florida, were also mentioned as potential high-risk areas in the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

If sea-level rise continues at its predicted pace, the above historic sites could be among the many submerged in over three feet of water by the end of the 21st century, Newsweek wrote.

The researchers, who were led by University of Tennessee, Knoxville archaeologist David Anderson, studied data from the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA), Jinan effort to see how rising sea levels might affect archaeological and historical sites in nine states in the southeastern U.S. These are states where even seemingly tiny changes to sea levels were shown to have prominent effects on shoreline movement, due to a lack of elevation.

“DINAA allows us to examine where people were living in North America over the entire 15,000-year record of human settlement,” Anderson said in an interview with Live Science.

“We will lose much of the record of the last several thousand years of human occupation in coastal areas, where a great deal of history and settlement has occurred.”

Based on the study’s findings, there is a chance that a relatively small increase in sea-level rise, meaning one ranging from three to 10 feet, could threaten these historical sites and attractions. Furthermore, the researchers warned that sea-level rises of 16.4 feet or higher might result in even more sites – over 32,000 archaeological sites, including more than 2,400 listed on the National Register of Historic Places – getting submerged in water.

Jamestown, Virginia is one of several historical sites that might be at risk if sea levels rise by as little as three feet. Zack Frank / Shutterstock

In addition to potentially wiping out numerous historical sites, sea-level rise also has the potential to displace up to three million residents of Southeastern states, as most people in those states live in areas no greater than three feet above sea level. According to Newsweek, Florida and Louisiana are expected to bear the brunt of the damage, due to the former state having the longest coastal margin in the southeastern U.S., and the latter likely to be affected by shoreline erosion and a higher-than-average rise in sea level relative to land.

As his team’s study only covered a specific region of the United States and not the whole country, Alexandria Archive Institute technology director and study co-author Eric Kansa told Newsweek that the information listed in the DINAA database only represents a modest estimate of the number of sites that could be affected by sea-level rise. He noted that there are many other undocumented sites that have yet to be studied, and that the new research only “[scratches] the surface” when it comes to estimating the damage rising sea levels could cause.

Despite the grim predictions made in his team’s study, Anderson expressed hope that more states would have their historical and archaeological sites listed in the DINAA database, in order to help officials make better decisions “about what to try to save, and how.”