A Tale Of Prehistoric Climate Change

A survey of part of Florida’s northern gulf coast is revealing how people dealt with rising sea levels centuries ago.

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In consultation with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, archaeologists from the University of Florida, the National Park Service, and the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research teamed up in March of 2013 to salvage a 4,500-year-old cemetery of thirty-two individuals at McClamory Key.
In consultation with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, archaeologists from the University of Florida, the National Park Service, and the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research teamed up in March of 2013 to salvage a 4,500-year-old cemetery of thirty-two individuals at McClamory Key.

Winter 2017: By Julian Smith.

Florida, with an average elevation of six feet above sea level, tops the list of states at risk of flooding due to climate change. Over three-quarters of the Sunshine State’s twenty million residents live on or near its 1,350-mile coastline, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that sea levels are already rising more than a third of an inch a year. Even modest projections show Florida’s sea levels up to seventeen inches higher by 2030. While politicians and urban planners debate how to deal with this, archaeologists are looking to the past to see how its earliest inhabitants adapted to changing sea levels long before high-rises filled the streets of Miami.

The Lower Suwannee Archaeological Survey (LSAS) was launched in 2009 to investigate prehistoric sites along Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, fifty miles north of Tampa. Its goal, said project leader Ken Sassaman, an archaeologist with the University of Florida, is more than just recording and interpreting data from sites that may well be underwater in the near future. It’s also to use this information to help contemporary policy makers respond to climate change and its consequences. “In our lifetime, we could see half of lower Florida under water,” Sassaman said. “We’re trying to understand how people who lived through this sort of change anticipated different futures.”

The LSAS study area spans twenty-six miles of coastline, in the center of which is the mouth of the Suwanee River, the only major gulf-draining river in the state that hasn’t been altered by canals or dams. The study area encompasses 54,000 acres of federal land in two national wildlife refuges, Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys. Together they protect dunes, salt marshes, and tidal creeks, with low islands and oyster reefs offshore.

The low-relief landscape created abundant and productive estuarine and intertidal habitats, which helped draw the first humans here in the late Holocene. It has also been sensitive to the slightest changes in sea level.

Excerpt.

Read More in our Winter 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4.             Browse Content of this Issue: WINTER 2017.

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