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Climate Change Threatens Historic U.S. Landmarks, Report Claims

Climate change is threatening to erase sacred slices of American history, putting some 30 landmarks in at risk, a scientific group asserted Tuesday.
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Climate change is threatening to erase 30 of the most treasured slices of American history, a scientific group asserted Tuesday.

Rising ocean levels, mammoth flooding from extreme storms, and an expanding spate of wildfires are all putting an array of celebrated and seminal U.S. places under siege –- and some possibly under water, according to a report titled "National Landmarks at Risk."

Authored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit alliance of more than 400,000 biologists, physicists and other citizens based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the report’s list of jeopardized memorials reads like a grade-school history book -– from the Statue of Liberty in New York to California’s 19th-century gold-rush ground.

"We’re heading into Memorial Day this weekend ... Millions of Americans are starting to plan and think about their summer vacations, and many of them are going to go to national parks and historic districts, to the places where American history was made," Adam Markham, director of climate impacts at UCS and report co-author said at a news briefing Tuesday.

"Our report is about … how so many of those places are being impacted right now by climate change." he added. "The impacts will get worse in the future. The risks are growing. The vulnerability is greater."

The litany of sacred American places cited as being in the line of fire - some literally - includes 10,000-year-old archeological sites -- such as the Bering Land Bridge in Alaska where humans first entered the continent -- to east-coast colonial vestiges to the spot in Florida where people left Earth to begin to explore well beyond this planet.

"The impacts will get worse in the future. The risks are growing. The vulnerability is greater."

Since work began on the report, the authors said they witnessed massive wildfires devour parts of New Mexico and 1,000-year floods kill people in Colorado -- weather events, they maintain, that were fueled and hastened by a warming planet that is dangerously drier in some places and precariously wetter in others.

"What's been remarkable is to see how quickly things are changing," Markham said. “It's been quite shocking, really, to see the damage."

Image: Senators Speak Through Night on Climate Change in DC
File photo of the dome of the US Capitol seen behind the smokestacks of the Capitol Power Plant, the only coal-burning power plant in the nation's capitol, in Washington, DC.JIM LO SCALZO / EPA file

In New Mexico, the two largest wildfires in the state's recorded history have erupted during the past five years, putting some sites of ancient people in immediate danger, said U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“We are who we are because you cannot separate those natural resources from our history," Heinrich said, adding that in his view, there have been "marked changes" to precipitation amounts, temperatures and wind, all of which have driven a fire pattern in Western states "that is very, very different."

“That combination has the potential and has already begun to wipe archeological sites literally off of the map," Heinrich said.

Added Jeffrey Altschul, president of the American Society for American Archaeology: "Climate change is eroding and will continue to erode our historic fabric, disturbing and destroying many archaeological, traditional and historic sites that embody the values we cherish as a nation.”

The at-risk list, according to the scientists, includes:

  • Jamestown, Virginia: home of the first permanent, English settlement, which “is likely to be submerged by rising seas by the end of the century.”
  • The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Cambridge, Maryland, which also is facing an ocean overrun.
  • Fort Monroe in Virginia, a pivotal place in the ultimate fall of slavery, “will become an island unto itself within 70 years.”
  • Cape Canaveral in Florida, home to Kennedy Space Center where the Apollo rockets began exploring beyond Earth, has already faced storm surges that “regularly breach the dunes near the launch pads” and work efforts to restore those dunes has “been undone by subsequent storms.”
  • The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York Harbor. During Superstorm Sandy, both of the islands were submerged, and structures and property sustained an estimated $77 million in damage. Closed for repairs, they were re-opened to the public in 2013. But each “may again be in harm’s way,” the report states, due to future storm tides and higher sea levels.
  • In Alaska, winter storms have eroded the coastlines of Cape Krusenstern National Monument and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve – ongoing destruction exacerbated by melting sea ice and thawing permafrost. Consequently, historic artifacts “are actually crumbling out of the shorelines in these Alaskan sites and washing out to sea.”
  • In California’s Sierra Mountains, elevated temperatures are drying the forests and eating into the winter snowpack. Those factors are, in turn, is boosting the risk of huge wildfires in the former Gold Rush country, including the historic Groveland Hotel.

The report’s authors acknowledge the rate of climate encroachment and potentially catastrophic damage are “slow” -- and that pace gives land managers, archaeologists, and preservationists additional time to protect the landmarks.

But the scientists assert that the key to protecting the monuments begins with “significantly” and swiftly cutting carbon emissions to curb the rise of the seas, suppress additional temperature spikes and dampen the growth of wildfire season.

The authors also call on Congress to fund President Barack Obama’s proposed Climate Resilience Fund, which they claim could help cities and businesses to become better protected from the effects of a warming planet.

“The fund could also be used to help protect and preserve the nation's iconic and historical landmarks and irreplaceable archaeological treasures that are being destroyed by sea level rise, wildfire and flooding," said Angela Anderson, director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS.