A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) highlights threats from the impact of global warming to which the U.S. travel industry should be paying close attention.
Last month, UCS, an independent alliance of science analysts, undertook an in-depth study of the current and future impact of climate change on 30 at-risk historical and archaeological sites in the U.S. The group’s findings were released in a report titled “National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites.”
What UCS found was that rising sea levels, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains and more frequent large-scale wildfires are in some cases causing irreparable damage to archaeological sites, historical buildings and cultural landmarks across the U.S., and, if not addressed, could ultimately result in the total loss of many sites that are popular tourist attractions.
The report coincides with President Obama’s anticipated announcement this week of a politically controversial plan to crack down on power plant emissions.
In an interview last week, Adam Markham, director of the Climate Impacts Initiative at UCS and one of the report’s co-authors, said, “Climate change has become a lightning-rod political issue, and we were trying to depoliticize it by showing how seriously it impacts places that all Americans care about. For us, it was a way to take the politics away from climate change.”
It is difficult to take politics and controversy out of the climate change debate. Skeptics disagree with scientists who claim that increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere are resulting in severe global warming. Yet the threats to the sites researched by UCS are well documented, whether or not one believes they are directly attributable to climate change.
The report is a collection of some 30 case studies of national parks, monuments and historical and archaeological landmarks from around the country, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Boston’s historical districts, the Harriet Tubman National Monument, Historic Jamestown, NASA Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral National Seashore, Bering Land Bridge National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park and Cesar Chavez National Monument.
“The area where it’s almost clearest that climate change is having an impact is from sea level rise,” Markham said. “So as the seas rise, that means we get more coastal flooding, and when storms hit, we get more storm surge.”
According to UCS, that possibility became a reality in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy submerged most of Liberty and Ellis islands, causing an estimated $77 million in damage to those sites alone and forcing parks officials to shut them down until the following year.
Jamestown Island in Virginia is another cause for alarm, according to Markham. With predictions for sea-level rise estimated at 3 feet or more by the end of the century, he said, the site of the first permanent English colony in America, which sits at 3 feet above sea level, is at risk of being submerged.
In Alaska, melting sea ice has given way to erosion of the coastlines of Cape Krusenstern National Monument and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. And in the Western states, climate change is increasing the risk of large wildfires by driving up temperatures, reducing winter snowpack and drying out forests, according to the report.
The goal of UCS in releasing the report is to raise awareness about the impact of climate change in general, but it is also a call to action for the support and preservation of sites that are or soon will be at risk and around which a robust and lucrative tourism industry has been built.
The hope, said Markham, is that observers will take a more serious look at the threats and take action to prevent the worst from happening.
Remediation could mean anything from moving actual landmarks — as was the case with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina, which in 1999 was moved 2,900 feet from the spot on which it had stood since 1870 to avoid the threat of coastal erosion — to creating new sea walls or building up existing sea walls and sand dunes to protect important natural or historical sites.
For people interested in getting involved, Markham suggested offering money or in-kind support to organizations that work to protect such sites.
But he also noted that the larger objective for UCS is working to reduce carbon emissions and slowing the speed of climate change. For the travel industry, Markham suggested working to find ways to reduce the industry’s footprint with more sustainable travel practices and using travel’s influence as a way to raise awareness of the issue.
Climate scientists point out that the threats brought to light by the report are not unique to the case study sites but rather are issues that face destinations both within the U.S. and throughout the world. And they note that similar concerns are going to crop up with more frequency and greater urgency as significant cultural, historical and natural treasures increasingly are threatened by changing climate conditions.
“I talked to an archaeologist in Rome recently who was involved with how the recent floods in Europe are impacting some of the Roman remains, including at Pompeii,” Markham said. “And the World Heritage Sites within Unesco, they’ve also been looking at these impacts. So I think there’s a growing realization around the world that this is a major issue for both ancient and modern historic sites.”