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“Before it is swallowed by the sea”—erosion may destroy coastal sites before rising seas do

Skara Brae archaeological site, Scotland

“But after enduring for millennia, these archaeological sites – along with many others from Easter Island to Jamestown – are facing an existential threat from climate change.”

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 baffling in which contemporary climate change is being buffeted. 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.

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).

A recent article discusses the threat to coastal archaeological sites, such as Skara Brae in Scotland, from climate change. But these sites are not just threatened with inundation by rising seas. The increased intensity of storms will also lead to increased erosion long before the sites are flooded. (The 2007 photo above of Skara Brae by Wknight94 is shared here under CC BY-SA 3.0).


Heritage At Risk: How Rising Seas Threaten Ancient Coastal Ruins

By Adam Markham

Yale Environment 360

July 17, 2017

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