The following is an article excerpt from the Winter 2019 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By Tamara Jager Stewart
With sea levels and temperatures rising, permafrost thawing, hurricanes and wildfires raging, archaeological resources are facing grave threats. “There is global scientific agreement that this is a real crisis,” emphasized David Anderson, an archaeologist with the University of Tennessee. “And cultural heritage needs to be part of the climate change discussion. Do we abandon these structures and sites, move them, build sea walls? What gets protected? When tens of millions of people have to move off coast, what happens with their past places?”
In 2018, the Moccasin Mesa Fire burned 185 acres in Mesa Verde National Park, including a number of archaeological sites. The park’s archaeologists spent last summer assessing and recording sites in the burned area. They also looked for trees that could fall and damage the sites, as well as areas that could be affected by erosion. | Photo: NPS/ Cristy Brown
Rachel Reckin examines a length of what was later determined to be horsehair cordage that had been exposed by the retreating Greater Yellowstone area ice patch visible in the background of the photo. The cordage was subsequently radiocarbon dated to the 1700s. | Photo: Craig Lee, Univ. of Colorado – INSTAAR
A crew wraps fire-resistant material around the wooden portion of an ancient cliff dwelling at the Tonto National Monument in central Arizona. The monument was threatened by a wildfire last June. | Photo: NPS/M. Monahan
In 2002, the Long Mesa Fire came very close to burning offices at Mesa Verde National Park. Firefighters managed to save all of the buildings. | Photo: NPS
A paper that was published in American Antiquity in 2019 titled “Preparing for the Future Impacts of Megastorms on Archaeological Sites: An Evaluation of Flooding from Hurricane Harvey, Houston, Texas” warned that “Powerful hurricanes in 2017—Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—were stark examples of how these previously rare catastrophes are becoming increasingly normal due to climate change, with dire consequences for cultural resources.” According to the paper, 920 archaeological sites in southeast Texas were flooded by Harvey’s storm surge and rainfall.
In 2017 environmental archaeologist Isabel Rivera-Collazo of the University of California, San Diego, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography led a cultural heritage assessment for the Climate Change Council, a panel that advises the Puerto Rican government. That assessment concluded that many sites face inundation by rising sea levels and violent tropical storms. That year Hurricane Maria hit the region with a thirty-foot storm surge, causing flooding, massive erosion, and mudslides. It’s estimated that thousands of historic buildings were destroyed or damaged. The impacts to archaeological resources have yet to be assessed, but reports indicate countless eroded sites and looting of exposed sites. “There is an urgent need to identify innovative ways to mitigate loss,” said Rivera-Collazo.