You may have heard that the namesake glaciers in Glacier National Park are shrinking, but it’s not the only iconic place in the United States severely affected by climate change.
According to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), there are many national parks and landmarks under serious threat from climate change, so much so that they will be irreparably damaged, or worse, completely disappear. When we think of parks and monuments, we often think of grand landscapes and wilderness. But it’s not just the outdoors and the environment that is at risk here, it’s also our cultural heritage.
“Many of the United States’ iconic landmarks and heritage sites are at risk as never before. Sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and more frequent large wildfires are damaging archaeological resources, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes across the nation,” says the report.
In fact, according to the National Park Service, 96% of park service land is in areas where global warming has been observed in the past century.
Overall the report features 30 different places across the United States, all chosen “because the science behind the risks they face is robust, and because together they shine a spotlight on the different kinds of climate impacts already affecting the United States’ cultural heritage.” Here are 10 of them.
1. Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
By 1954, when Ellis Island officially closed its doors, 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island. Since then it has become an iconic tourist destination, with millions of tourists, from the United States and abroad coming to the island, many in homage to their forefathers who emigrated to the United States. In 2012, the island, and the Statue of Liberty which sits upon the nearby Liberty Island, were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. “A massive storm unlike any experienced before in New York, together with rising sea levels primarily due to climate change, caused floodwaters to inundate three-quarters of Liberty Island and almost all of Ellis Island,” according to the UCS report. With $77 million in damage, Liberty Island was closed for 8 months, and Ellis Island only partially reopened a year later.
But Hurricane Sandy was not a one-off storm, and the landmarks continue to be threatened, especially with severe weather increases and rising sea levels.
2. Mesa Verde National Park
The abandoned dwellings of the Pueblo in Southwestern Colorado are an extraordinary sight. The Puebloans began settling here in the sixth century, a full thousand years before the Europeans came to the Americas. Why these people abandoned their dwellings remains a mystery, but today you can still go and see these homes built into the limestone. The ability to experience this place may not hold for long, as the area is grappling with the possibility of devastating wildfires, fueled by the fact that it has been warmer in this area since 1950 than any period of comparable length in at least 600 years.
“Fire resets the clock. It removes artifacts from time,” Rachel Loehman, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist told National Geographic. “If we start losing the archaeological record, we’re never going to get it back.”
3. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument
Abolitionist Harriet Tubman is a woman that we learn about from a young age, stories of the Underground Railroad a mainstay in elementary school history lessons. And while Tubman and so many others risked their lives in the antislavery movement, today the area that is intended to honor Tubman’s legacy is endangered by sea levels in the Chesapeake Bay, which have risen at almost twice the global rate because of climate change.
4. Kaloko-Honokōhau and Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historic Parks
It comes as no surprise that rising sea levels are a serious problem for the national parks on the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. At Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau, cultural resources have been damaged by storm surges and flooding in the past, and continue to be vulnerable to rising sea levels. Kaloko-Honokōhau is home to ancient structures that were used for trapping fish, as well as the Aimakapā fishpond, used to raise fish for royal chiefs and which may be more than 600 years old. The beach in front of it is currently eroding at a rate of three to four inches per year.
5. Johnson Space Center
Established in 1961, the Johnson Space Center is NASA’s command center for human spaceflight operations, and its Apollo Mission Control Center is a National Historic Landmark. But it’s not the only NASA site threatened by climate change. Rising seas are becoming a problem for Kennedy Space Center, Langley Research Center and more as well. Houston, we have a problem.
6. Historic Jamestown
The first permanent English settlement in North America could be completely submerged under water by the end of the next century. Almost all of the land in this historic area is today less than five feet above the water, a small margin when factoring the threat of rising sea levels, and the waters surrounding Jamestown have been rising at a rate of more than twice the global average.
7. Bering Land Bridge National Monument
The first humans to populate North America may have arrived as long as 15,000 years ago (or even earlier), originating from south Siberia. The Bering Land Bridge National Monument is home to a high concentration of artifacts from this period, helping archeologists piece together the story of early North American history. But Alaska has warmed more than the lower 48 in the past few decades, and permafrost degradation due to climate change is damaging some cultural heritage sites, and coastal erosion is literally washing away artifacts. According to the report, “Over the last three decades, sea ice extent in the Arctic summer has declined more than 10 percent every decade, with new record-low levels of ice occurring on a regular basis.”
8. Boston’s Historic Districts
One of the oldest cities in the United States, Boston is known as the birthplace of the American Revolution. It’s strong place in history doesn’t make it immune to the effects of climate change, though: Boston is at high risk of flooding. In fact, the OECD “ranked Boston the eighth-highest metropolitan area worldwide in expected economic losses, estimated at $237 million per year between now and 2050, due to coastal flooding.”
9. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
If you’ve seen a picture from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you’ve probably seen Cape Hatteras. The striped lighthouse is an iconic landmark, clocking in at 200 feet tall. While for many years, it protected ships from danger on the high seas, today it’s the lighthouse that is endangered by those seas. According to the report, “in recent years, sea level has been rising in the Outer Banks two to three times faster than the global average.” That has forced the National Park Service to physically move the lighthouse inland in order to protect it.
10. The Gold Rush Town of Groveland
Want to know what the Wild West felt like? Then you go to Groveland, a town that’s a California Historic Landmark, putting you right back into the days of the Gold Rush. This town that is dependent on the tourists that come through to visit nearby Yosemite National Park is threatened by wildfires now.
Average wildfire seasons, which were five months long in the 1970s, now last more than seven months. According to the report, “Wildfires are expected to burn more land, particularly in mid-elevation sites on the west side of the Sierras, making it more likely that Gold Rush–era communities — as well as the majestic Yosemite Valley — will more frequently be in the path of destruction.”
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