Catalyst Summer 2014

Our National Heritage at Risk

Wildfire has ravaged the forest around Mesa Verde National Park. Difficult terrain forces fire crews to use aerial water drops and fire retardant, called slurry, which stains and damages the sandstone. Fire also accelerates spalling, the peeling away of the rock face as the water in the sandstone evaporates, which can destroy ancient rock carvings.

By Kate Cell

Fort Monroe is one of the United States' newest national monuments, having been designated by President Obama in 2011. But now the Virginia fort, dubbed “Freedom’s Fortress” because of its role in the end of slavery, needs protection itself—from rising sea levels and floods caused by climate change.

Built in 1609 on low-lying Old Point Comfort at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, the land that became Fort Monroe was the disembarkation point for the first enslaved Africans to arrive in English North America. It became a beacon of freedom in the early 1860s when the fort's commander, Union General Benjamin Butler, gave refuge to people escaping slavery on the basis that they were “contraband of war”—a decision that helped set off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Fort Monroe, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, played a role in ending slavery. Today, the fort is threatened by flooding due to rising sea levels and heavier precipitation.

A nearby tide gauge shows that water levels have risen almost a foot and a half since the 1920s, and a recent study projects the state’s coastal waters could rise another two feet by 2050 and up to six feet by the end the century. With a higher sea level, storm surges—the potentially destructive increases in sea height that occur during a coastal storm—could inundate areas much farther inland. A storm surge of more than five and a half feet during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 caused more than $100 million in damage at the fort.

In addition, since 1950 the area around Fort Monroe has experienced significantly more heavy rains than before. The combination of rising sea level and heavier precipitation will likely increase the frequency and severity of flooding at the fort.

Local Issues, National Concerns

UCS is bringing attention to the plight of Fort Monroe and some 30 other threatened sites in 15 states in our new report National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States' Most Cherished Sites. From sea to rising sea, a remarkable number of the places where American history was made are feeling the effects of human-caused global warming. Though the examples in our report represent just a few of the many places we could have discussed, taken together they vividly illustrate an urgent problem: the geographic and cultural quilt that tells the American story is fraying at the edges, and our children might not get to experience the places they learn about in history classes if we do not take swift action to protect them.

The sites featured in National Landmarks at Risk were chosen because the science behind the threats in each case study is robust. Our findings should serve as a wake-up call: climate change is no longer a distant threat for others to worry about. The consequences are already under way, forcing federal and state agencies, park managers, archaeologists, historic preservationists, engineers, architects, city leaders, the military, and others to spend time and resources protecting sites and preparing for additional expected changes—from installing breakwaters that protect against coastal erosion on Virginia’s Jamestown Island to flood-proofing electrical utilities at the Statue of Liberty. Similarly laudable efforts are needed elsewhere, so UCS is working with experts around the country to amplify their concerns and push for the necessary resources to help protect these important places before further damage occurs.

We must also work to minimize the risk our national landmarks—and our communities—face by reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change. The science is clear that by reducing our carbon pollution we can slow the pace of change and lower the risk that extreme heat, wildfires, heavy downpours, and rising seas will become commonplace.

A Call to Action

UCS released National Landmarks at Risk at a Capitol Hill briefing on May 20. Accompanying us were experts from the National Parks Conservation Association, the Society for American Archaeology, the Historic Preservation Commission of Annapolis, and Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, who spoke to their legislators about the challenges their communities and professions face. Many of our supporters also took action; by the time Catalyst went to press, they had sent more than 15,000 postcards and emails to Congress demanding funding to help increase the climate resiliency of our national parks and other cherished places. Complementing these efforts is a series of blogs written by UCS staff and guest experts, and a video that aired in 49 airports over Memorial Day weekend. Everything—including additional opportunities for action—are on the UCS website.

The Kunta Kinte—Alex Haley Memorial in Annapolis, MD, is shown during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The city's historic preservation division says the statue is now a de facto flood guage.

The United States boasts more than 400 sites in its National Park System, which received more than 275 million visitors in 2011. There are also more than 80,000 sites in the National Register of Historic Places. The stories these sites tell symbolize the values that unite all Americans: patriotism, freedom, democracy, respect for ancestors, and admiration for the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit. If future generations are to experience the joy and wonder these extraordinary places engender, we must act now to protect them from the impacts of climate change.

Kate Cell is a senior outreach coordinator in the UCS Climate and Energy Program.

Photos: © Damon Tighe (Mesa Verde); © Flickr/Peter Stinson (Fort Monroe); © Alexis Bond (Alex Haley Memorial)