Optimizing Historical Preservation Under Climate Change: A Pilot Study at Cape Lookout National Seashore

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Researchers at the Southeast CASC have developed a tool to better inform managers of climate adaptation plans for the preservation and persistence of cultural and historical resources affected by climate change.

Photo of house-type structure on green lawn with blue skies

Photo of house-type structure on Cape Lookout. Credit: Erin Seekamp

Cultural resources—such as archeological sites, ancient buildings, and landscapes—can personify human history and are significantly influential to diverse groups of people. Like many natural resources, the persistence of cultural resources is being challenged by environmental variability as a result of climate change. For instance, Cape Lookout National Seashore, located on the Barrier Islands off the coast of North Carolina, is currently undergoing physical changes as a result of sea-level rise, changing temperatures, and changing precipitation patterns. This maritime resource holds archeological sites, cemeteries, and cultural artifacts associated with World War II, which are now at risk from erosion, flooding, and decay.

Many cultural resource managers are actively working to put into place climate adaptation plans to conserve these culturally significant sites. However, the preservation of cultural resources in the face of climate change poses unique challenges to these managers. Many useful climate adaptation strategies create additional threats to the integrity of these historic features, requiring managers to sometimes make difficult tradeoffs to achieve desired management outcomes.

In an effort to provide necessary scientific information to inform cultural resource managers of climate adaptation options at Cape Lookout, researchers developed a new method that allows the managers to systematically account for a number of different factors, including future potential climate conditions, and the age, purpose, architecture, and vulnerability of historic buildings. This work was funded by the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center and is a collaboration with the National Park Service (NPS) and researchers from North Carolina State University. The outcome of the work, the Optimal Preservation (OptiPres) Model, helps managers to map out ideal adaptation plans for specified cultural resources. This research at Cape Lookout serves as a pilot study using the OptiPres model that could be scaled up for assessing additional cultural resources in the future.

Photo of lighthouse and adjacent house. Sandy beach and blue skies in foreground.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Credit: Erin Seekamp

Using OptiPres, the researchers and NPS managers were able to evaluate tradeoffs related to preserving historic or structural aspects of the important cultural resources. OptiPres has the ability to select the combination of investments that provides the most resource value to the decision maker over a specified period and budget constraint. The recent publication which resulted from this pilot study offers several important findings for the development of optimal climate adaptation plans for Cape Lookout resources. 

The goal of this pilot study was to test the OptiPres model under different planning scenarios set forth by NPS as feasible management actions. The possible adaptation actions developed for specific buildings located at Cape Lookout during this pilot study included preserving the building’s core and shell using either historic or resilient materials, elevating the building, or relocating the building. Using this new method for evaluating tradeoffs, cultural resource managers at Cape Lookout and elsewhere can be better prepared with scientific and systematic information as they assess the vulnerability of individual resources and evaluate possible actions for historic preservation. 

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