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Canaries in the coal mine—cultural heritage and climate change

Sailing, Newport, Rhode Island

Keeping History Above Water—"the increasing and varied risks posed by sea level rise to historic coastal communities, their built environments and traditional ways of life"

The Boston Harbor Islands off the coast of eastern Massachusetts were once drumlins—glacially formed hills—in the landscape of the mainland. Frequented by early humans primarily because of their access to coastal food resources, the drumlins subsequently were flooded due to sea level rise as the last Ice Age ended some 10,000 years ago. Thus, the drumlins became islands and many coastal prehistoric sites from the earliest periods of human occupation of the region were inundated. Today, the Boston Harbor Islands form a national and state park.

Many archaeologists find the current political climate in which contemporary climate change is being buffeted of great bafflement. Researchers previously have studied the effects of thousands of years of fluctuating climate change for years without political interference. As the climate warms, sea levels rise, with a resulting effect on coastal regions. The same coastal regions in which many historic cities and towns were established during times of global maritime travel and trade. The only difference is the contribution of significant human activity to the pace of global climate change currently underway. Looking to the past to help deal with the future is one of the primary contributions of archaeologists, historians, and others to contemporary society.

In Annapolis, Maryland, an international group of researchers, historians, and city planners among others are recently convened the conference Keeping History Above Water, focusing on historic coastal communities on the front line of sea level rise. The conference, co-founded by the Newport Restoration Foundation and the City of Annapolis, began last year in Newport, Rhode Island, a historic colonial seaport that later became a favorite summer spot for those with Gilded Age fortunes and currently a contemporary popular tourist attraction and summer resort. (The 2016 photo above of the Newport waterfront by chensiyuan is shared here under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License).

The impetus for the conference stemmed from increased threats to the historic Christopher Townsend House (built 1728) at 74 Bridge Street in Newport’s Point neighborhood. Faced with increased flooding of this historic site, the Newport Restoration Foundation used the historic house as a pilot study to look at ways to make such threatened historic sites more resilient in the face of increased threats due to the climate change-related rise in sea level. The case study led to the first Keeping History Above Water conference in 2016. The second edition is being held in November 2017 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Historic sites such as Newport’s Townsend House serve as early warning markers—canaries in the coal mine, if you will—of the potential and likely disastrous effects of sea level rise to coastal communities. Unlike new construction laid out in flood-prone areas, Newport’s colonial waterfront developed over several centuries beginning with the town’s founding in 1639 before the modern rise in sea level began. Such historic coastal communities are not only early warning signs; they are also excellent laboratories for measuring the effects of sea level rise and determining appropriate measures to ameliorate the impending damage.

At the international level, UNESCO has compiled a number of studies highlighting the potential for damage to World Heritage Sites, including as many as one in four natural sites on the World Heritage List. In fact, UNESCO identifies climate change as one of its major themes, pulling together the work of 30 programmes in science, education, and culture to foster research and education on climate change. Recently, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova released a statement for 2017 emphasizing the role of STI—science, technology, and innovation—in building peace and bolstering sustainable development, both of which are at the heart of the Paris agreement. (Note: Ms. Bokova’s term ended with November 10, 2017 with the confirmation of France’s former culture minister, Audrey Azoulay, to Director General).

Although the US currently is on track to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a group of US congressman, senators, governors, and mayors hosted a “rogue” pavilion at the COP23 summit in Bonn, Germany. The pavilion was intended to highlight the determination of many in the United States to continue to work toward policies that will ameliorate the negative effects of climate change, despite the current US administration’s position. This group includes a small contingent highlighting the potential role of cultural heritage in the development of climate change policies. Contemporary policy makers would be wise to look to the cultural heritage community for innovative research and policies related to climate change.


Keeping History Above Water: Annapolis at Center of Sea Level Rise Warnings

Chesapeake Bay Magazine

November 1, 2017

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