New Research on Climate Change and Archaeology

A new paper published in PLOS One has highlighted the threat that sea-level rise poses to historic and archeological resources in the United States. Using the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA), researchers looked at sites in nine states on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. They discovered that even a one-meter rise in sea levels would result in the loss of over 13,000 recorded archaeological sites, as well as 1,000 sites currently eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. This does not include the many cultural resources that have not yet been identified by archaeologists, as well as the resources that will be affected by the resettlement of populations away from the coasts.
The study has attracted interest from the national press, and has been covered by the Washington PostNational GeographicHyperallergic, and others. Writing in Wired Magazine, Matt Simon describes the importance of this research, even if the outlook is grim:

It’s all a bit demoralizing, I know. But this research is an attempt to bring some order to what is quickly becoming chaos. “What we are hoping to get started is a conversation in American archaeology, and world archaeology,” says co-author Josh Wells of Indiana University South Bend. “What are the effects of climate change on the record as we understand it, and to what extent do we need to triage and focus our efforts on recovering what we can before it’s gone?” They’ll need to work quickly, because the scourge has already begun. “This is ongoing now with sea levels slowly coming up, increased storm surges,” says study co-author David Anderson of the University of Tennessee. “We’re seeing erosion of coastal archaeological sites.”

Elsewhere, a piece in CityLab covers efforts by the Florida Public Archaeology Network to monitor that state’s archaeological resources and protect them against erosion, flooding, and sea-level rise. This work has brought together universities, government officials, as well as members of the public:

Through her work at FPAN, Ayers-Rigsby has also helped recruit a team of citizen scientists to fan out across the state and conduct regular monitoring of at-risk sites. Inspired by a U.K. program, Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk, the Heritage Monitoring Scouts, a brigade more than 200 people strong, survey publicly accessible sites—not the more sensitive ones, like unmarked burial grounds—and upload their impressions onto a website form. They look out for signs of flooding, erosion, or wave action, or any artifacts that may have been dredged to the surface, and flag any places that need urgent attention.

These monitoring efforts are not in themselves solutions, and we will have to come to terms with some degree of loss over the coming century. Archaeological sites can be especially difficult to protect from climate change, since many protection efforts could themselves damage undiscovered resources. All the same, these sorts of large, multi-institutional efforts are critical in order to understand and mitigate potential impacts. Equally important are efforts to publicize this research, especially within mainstream and general interest publications.

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