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Faneuil Hall, Boston.

Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, lies within the city's hundred-year tidal flood zone.

Photograph by S. Greg Panosian, Getty

Rachel Hartigan Shea

National Geographic

Published May 20, 2014

What do prehistoric pueblos, rocket launch pads, and a colonial-era meeting hall have in common?

They are all being threatened by climate change, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The report, released today, details how 30 national landmarks across the United States may be irreparably damaged or even lost forever due to the effects of climate change. The threatened sites span the continent from Florida to Alaska and encompass eras from prehistory to the space age. "It's the whole sweep of American history," says Adam Markham, director of climate impacts for the UCS.

Amid all the concern over climate change, relatively little attention has been paid to how it will affect cultural resources. "It's an ignored issue in the world of climate change assessment," says Markham. "We needed to fill that gap because the threats are quite alarming."

The report, called "National Landmarks at Risk," does not encompass all historic sites affected by climate change. "We looked for places," says Markham, "where there was a very strong set of climate data which enabled us to see impacts happening now or in the future that are attributable or consistent with climate change."

The list of threats includes rising seas, coastal erosion, flooding, heavy rains, drought, and intense wildfires.

Too Much Water

Along the Atlantic coast north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, sea levels have risen four times the national average, and historic downtowns face inundation. Boston's Faneuil Hall, where the Sons of Liberty plotted the Boston Tea Party, lies within the city's hundred-year tidal flood zone, which has experienced as many extreme high tides in the past decade as it had in the previous 80 years. (Read "Rising Seas" in National Geographic magazine.)

In Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy and the first post-Revolutionary War capitol, storm surges have caused water to "ascend three feet or more above mean sea level at least 10 times" in the past decade, according to the report.

Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English colony in North America, could actually disappear. The settlement is located on an island that sits less than five feet above sea level. Virginia's coastal waters are projected to rise up to six feet by 2100.

Illustrated explanation of how a storm surge forms.
MATTHEW TWOMBLEY, NG STAFF. SOURCES: NOAA; NATIONAL HURRICANE SERVICE; NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE

One of the country's newest national monuments may not survive the century. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, signed into existence by President Obama in 2013, may be largely submerged by 2050. Located along the Chesapeake Bay, the park reflects the wetland landscape that Tubman traveled through as she guided local slaves to freedom.

"It's very vulnerable," says Mary Foley, regional chief scientist with the National Park Service. "We're going to see higher flood events, higher tides, and loss of marshes to open water."

Even sites from recent history will require drastic changes to last into the next generation. NASA, a major provider of global data on climate change, is dealing with rising seas at many of its locations. According to the report, "More than two-thirds of NASA facilities [are] within 16 feet of sea level," including the Kennedy Space Center launch pads from which the Apollo missions and the space shuttles lifted into space. NASA has restored nearby protective dunes several times, but storm surges still break through.

At NASA's oldest site, Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, aging buildings are being torn down and rebuilt as far from the Chesapeake Bay as property lines allow. But right now, says Russell De Young, a senior research scientist at Langley, "storm surges from nor'easters and hurricanes could inundate the whole facility and make it unusable."

Too Little Water

Across the western U.S., the danger comes from too little water. Fires in the archaeologically rich Southwest are now longer, hotter, and larger as rising temperatures increase the likelihood of drought and lengthen the fire season.

Graphic showing increased number of wildfires in the continental U.S. annually since 1984, as well as increase in amount of acres burned annually.

If average temperatures increase by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit—a smaller increase than current projections for the Southwest—fires will increase fourfold in New Mexico. In recent years, intense fires have raged through Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, both significant ancient Pueblo sites.

Flames damage artifacts that have endured for millennia—for instance, burning off the ceramic glazes that allow archaeologists to date pottery.

"Fire resets the clock. It removes artifacts from time," says Rachel Loehman, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist who studies the effects of fire and climate change on artifacts. "If we start losing the archaeological record, we're never going to get it back."

Follow Rachel Hartigan Shea on Twitter.

14 comments
Lee Jae Hun
Lee Jae Hun

we need to pay attention to our environment before late.

Tom Zavesky
Tom Zavesky

The number and intensity of fires seem more closely coorolated to the mismanagement of those lands by BLM and other government agencies, then to climate change.

Asok Smith
Asok Smith

I'm pretty sure climate change causes warts, too.

Marianne Harding
Marianne Harding

Maybe NG needs to stop accepting comments based on the brain dead drivel already posted by the Friends of Pat Sajak.

joseph yechout
joseph yechout

Wow, what garbage.  How about being concerned about this

administration, far Leftist that it is, is destroying this once 

exceptional nation?  As Obummer's Science Czar John Holdren said, " We,,, need to deconstruct this nation." And for what?

For the coming of the New World Order. As Ob's promoter, supporter and  funder, Geo.Soros stated, " America is the last obstacle to the coming of the,New World Order."   Which cannot come with America, being an exceptional, Democratic Republic,

at one time that is, standing in the way.

David Lakatos
David Lakatos

Global warming is a man made con job. The Democrats think if you preach on climate change long enough People will finally be brain wash enough that they will believe it's true. Global warming is one more way the U.N. has backed a scheme to bring in the New World Order and destroy America's Sovereignty.


David Lakatos
David Lakatos

Global Climate Change is just another Racket just like the Drug War. As everybody knows there's been a sharp increase of Heroin Use in America. The United Nations is using our soldiers to guard the Global Elites and to big to fail Banks Poppy Field in Afghan which supply 90% of Heroin to the world. They had a Bumper Crop this year. The CIA are the biggest pusher of drugs. They flown military plane loaded with Heroin back to America to sell. Asked any Vietnam vet they no the truth

David Lakatos
David Lakatos

There blaming the dust Bowl on Climate Change. The dam Dust Bowl has been around before America became America.

Paul M.
Paul M.


*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

mark epp
mark epp

Is it possible that cold war shelters could be re-purposed to house artifacts?

After all future "generations" may wish to examine the evidence of our demise.

Digitizing content is a step in that direction and museums are doing a great job in that regard.

For ease of access you could visit a site such as americanhistorytour.com

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