Climate change threatens to wash away cultural history

As UN negotiators meet in Paris, historic preservationists try to identify a plan for safeguarding vulnerable landmarks

Kayakers on the flooded historic waterfront in Annapolis, Maryland, after Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Parts of the city were under as much as 4 feet of water, forcing preservationists to confront the task of preserving landmarks in the face of rising tides.
Blake Sell / Reuters / Landov

The seaport of Annapolis, Maryland, had seen floods before. But many residents were unprepared for the deluge of stormwater that gushed into the streets in mid-September 12 years ago when Hurricane Isabel struck the coast. Water rose through the drain system at the U.S. Naval Academy and swamped campus buildings, including some of the ornate, century-old halls. Downshore, in the Annapolis historic district, where some of the houses and buildings predate the American Revolution, the water spilled over windowsills.

Michael Dowling, a local architect, strolled from his house down to the dock to witness the calamity. “It was surreal to see buildings all around the City Dock poking up out of the water,” he remembered. Dozens of buildings were damaged. At a historic theater, moisture seeped into the 19th century bricks, eating away at the lime mortar. It took about seven years to repair the masonry.

The last storm to pummel the region this badly was in 1933. But if climate change piles extra feet of water onto storm surges and swollen tides, damage to the city’s historic sites could become more common — and costly. Dowling estimates that one fierce storm could wreak $320 million worth of damage in the historic district. Even smaller floods could wear away at both the city’s historic sites and its tourism economy. As sea levels rise as a result of global warming, nuisance floods have become almost routine in the city, Maryland’s capital. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that in 30 years, Annapolis could be flooded roughly every day.

The city’s historic preservationists are on the leading edge of a push to determine how to protect landmarks in the face of climate change. For people who have spent their lives dealing with the past, climate change is an awkward fight: It requires planning for an unprecedented future. It is partly an engineering problem. Dowling, for example, has worked with the theater to test what materials and techniques could be used to protect old wood framing and masonry. But climate change also poses a threat to the entire project of studying and recording history. Effects such as sea level rise, wildfires and more intense storms and disasters will ultimately destroy some cherished bits of history and culture and damage others beyond recognition. Accepting so many losses runs counter to the basic mission of historic preservation. Part of the goal now is to make sure that climate change doesn’t leave societies with a broken or impoverished sense of history and cultural heritage. This week at the United Nations negotiations in Paris, historic preservationists from around the world are holding their own discussions and side events about how to accomplish this.

‘We have to accept that we’re going to lose places. What, in the event of a disaster, are we going to let go of?’

Lisa Craig

chief of historic preservation, Annapolis

David Luchsinger, the superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, at the back door of his home, damaged by Superstorm Sandy, on Liberty Island in New York in 2012.
Richard Drew / AP

Two years ago, Lisa Craig, the chief of historic preservation for Annapolis, began leading a series of public discussions to help the city figure out how to protect its historic properties in the face of sea level rise and flooding. The city contracted Dowling to analyze architectural and engineering solutions and has partnered with the Naval Academy. In October last year, the city was named a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It became clear that whatever Annapolis did would be part of a national story.

Across the country, there are thousands of traces of history — from ancient archaeological sites to lofty estates, monuments, libraries and military buildings — that weren’t made to weather the weird and unpredictable climate of the 21st century. Some are such iconic and treasured parts of national identity or such boons to the tourism economy that it may be easy to justify doling out millions of dollars to keep them intact. (The National Park Service dedicated about $300 million to rebuild mid-Atlantic parks after Superstorm Sandy; most of that money has been spent on the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and other public spaces in and around New York Harbor.) But even some of the most famous landmarks might be tough to protect.

It may not be practical to move or lift the foundations of the thick-walled, granite edifices of the Naval Academy — even if they were hallowed by such national figures as former President Jimmy Carter and Sen. John McCain. And what of smaller places — buildings and barns, rowhouses and cobblestone paths and the encyclopedic information buried in the fossilized footprints and relics of archaeological sites?

“We have to accept that we’re going to lose places. What, in the event of a disaster, are we going to let go of?” said Craig.

In places like New York Harbor, where resources are more ample, it has been perhaps easier to decide what to let go of and what not to — and to document historic evidence before it disappears. After Superstorm Sandy, the National Park Service decided to dismantle all the housing on Liberty Island, even the brick house that had been home to the park superintendent. The agency is also disassembling some buildings near the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey and the old Army artillery post at Fort Tilden in New York. These were “not of extreme significance,” according to Tim Hudson, an agency engineer who has managed the recovery from Sandy. But in every loss, there’s a potential lesson, and all the buildings are carefully photographed and documented before their removal.

Smoke from Las Conchas fire in Los Alamos Canyon in New Mexico in 2011. The blaze scorched more than 156,000 acres, including Valles Caldera National Preserve to the west.
© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

The National Park Service is the lead federal agency keeping watch over many of the landmarks that form America’s legacy, from Liberty Island to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in the Arctic, where the first humans may have set foot in North America. It maintains the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks Program and sets policy on historic preservation that trickles down to state agencies. The agency also manages roughly 400 parks, monuments and other sites, all on a budget that has been cut by more than 20 percent over the last decade (though Barack Obama’s administration has proposed a budget increase for 2016). Dealing with climate change — including floodproofing and firefighting — ratchets up the cost of everything, and historic preservationists say they are already making tough choices about what to prioritize.

The effects of climate change have struck some places so suddenly that it has been hard to capture the information held in landmarks and artifacts before they are erased. In 2011, Las Conchas fire, which was then the largest and most ravenous wildfire New Mexico had seen in recorded history, raced across the Jemez Mountains at a pace of nearly an acre per second and into canyons and slopes full of archaeological sites. “As someone who thought I knew what the worst-case scenario would be, the Las Conchas Fire was something beyond that and something I had never imagined before,” said Anastasia Steffen, a Park Service archaeologist. In the wake of the fire, she trekked through the scorched pine and fir forests on the slopes of Cerro del Medio, one of several ancient domes that ring the volcanic crater in Valles Caldera National Monument. “The ground was completely black, and then all across there were all of the black obsidian artifacts exposed,” she recalled.

Obsidian is a naturally occurring glass that can form in a volcano. Acres of land around the crater of Valles Caldera are covered with projectile points and cutting tools made from the glistening rock over the past 10,000 years. In the weeks that followed the fire, rains and then flash floods rushed across the mountains, licking away the ash, eating the bare topsoil and eventually carrying the obsidian downhill. “When the rains kept coming, the archaeological sites themselves were being washed away,” said Steffen. “All the other information that would have told you about that time period when people were there and all the artifacts became jumbled downhill or downstream.”

The Park Service’s mission is to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System,” but climate change is making that impossible in some locations. Many historic preservationists say that in some cases, the only thing to do now is to try to catalog what remains. Marcy Rockman, who works (with the bulky job title climate change adaptation coordinator for cultural resources) in the National Park Service’s Washington, D.C., office, thinks global warming adds to the importance of recording the signs of the past. History and archaeology, she said, “helps us turn a mirror on ourselves and helps us come up with actual examples of what we mean by what is a sustainable society.”

But there’s little to be done if a place disappears before anyone can figure out what it had to offer. After a 2013 fire left all but two-fifths of Valles Caldera unscorched, “the choice we had to make here at the preserve was to focus our archaeologists on areas that hadn’t burned yet,” said Steffen.

In February, preservationists drafted and signed a manifesto, the Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage, which some in the field regard as a watershed moment.

In February, Craig and Rockman joined about two dozen of the country’s leading archaeologists and preservationists at the Pocantico Center, on what had been the estate of oil magnate John D. Rockfeller in Tarrytown, New York. There they drafted and signed a manifesto, the Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage, which some in the preservation field regard as a watershed moment. The group agreed that the forecasters of the future — climate scientists — hadn’t heard enough from the scholars and guardians of the past. The document decried that “neither costs of addressing climate change impacts on cultural heritage nor the knowledge we gain from understanding our cultural heritage [has] been comprehensively addressed in climate policy responses at any level.”

“We have a particular viewpoint. We have information to share that doesn’t come from any other sources,” said Rockman. In the months since Pocantico, ideas from the National Park Service have become part of discussions on world heritage at UNESCO meetings. At the current United Nations negotiations in Paris, side events on historic preservation include a conversation about how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading international body of climate scientists, might better examine questions about the loss of historical and archaeological sites.

Such issues are still so new and the situations so unorthodox to a historic preservationist that it’s often necessary to look far afield for answers. In November the city of Fernandina Beach, on a barrier island off the coast of Florida, helped host a public workshop on protecting cultural heritage in a time of sea level rise. Adrienne Burke, who manages the city’s historic preservation program, walked the group through a 200-year-old cemetery. Three years ago, she began looking for a way to save it from sea level rise. She read about coastal erosion in the United Kingdom, and one of its recommendations was to “recognize you will lose things.” “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s a real strategy,’” she said.

That’s not what Burke has planned for the place, which holds the remains of veterans from the Revolutionary and Civil wars, but she doesn’t know exactly what she will do. She hasn’t yet found anyone who has tried to save a cemetery from sea level rise. 

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