Safeguarding Our Cultural Past from Future Climate Change: Stories from Cape Lookout National Seashore

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The Interior Department’s Climate Science Centers, managed by USGS, are helping the National Park Service pinpoint the specific impacts of climate change on parks and their cultural and natural resources. Doing so will help managers answer a critical question: which resources will require human intervention to ensure their continued existence?

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse in 1883, Cape Lookout National Seashore
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse in 1883, Cape Lookout National Seashore. NPS photo(Public domain.)

On the East Coast of the United States, rising seas are lapping at the foundations of historic sites and structures. With this rise in sea level comes elevated storm surges, increasing the risks of flooding and shoreline erosion.

These impacts of climate change are making the future more uncertain for structures like Cape Lookout National Seashore’s historic lighthouse, a beacon of our nation’s rich maritime past.

Protecting these national treasures and other cultural resources is no easy task for the National Park Service, mandated to preserve culturally significant areas and artifacts. Forces of nature have always been a threat, but now climate change is poised to inflict even more significant damage. Perhaps this is the biggest threat to date. According to the NPS, several thousand historic sites are threatened by a rapidly changing climate.

In light of these and other climate-related threats, the Interior Department’s Climate Science Centers, managed by USGS, are helping the NPS pinpoint the specific impacts of climate change on parks and their cultural and natural resources. Doing so will help managers answer a critical question: which resources will require human intervention to ensure their continued existence?

In this two-part series on climate change and cultural resources, we look at research to help NPS managers preserve historic sites and structures. Click for Part Two, on Jamestown and the Colonial National Historical Park.

The 1907 Keeper's Quarters, Cape Lookout National Seashore
The 1907 Keeper's Quarter's, Cape Lookout National Seashore. This house was originally located by the lighthouse, but was moved in 1958 when it was no longer needed and was used as a private residence. This is one of many cultural resources that may be threatened by climate change. Credit: Erin Seekamp, North Carolina State University. Public domain.
U.S. Life-Saving Station in Portsmouth Historic Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore
A U.S. Life-Saving Station in Portsmouth Historic Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore. The station was build in 1894 to rescue ship-wrecked mariners. This is one of many cultural resources that may be threatened by climate change. Credit: Erin Seekamp, North Carolina State University. Public domain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Our Lighthouses and Other Maritime Resources

The barrier islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore entice visitors with remote beaches, wild horses and historic maritime attractions. For a cultural experience, visitors can tour the park’s two historic villages, Portsmouth (est. 1753) and Cape Lookout (est. 1887), and climb the steps of its iconic mid-19th century lighthouse. This lighthouse notably managed to survive the Civil War, during which time it was disabled, raided, and caught up in efforts to both darken and illuminate the coast for Union troops, depending on which side was in control.

Today, the relics of this region’s maritime past are threatened by stronger storms and hurricanes, rising seas and shoreline erosion.

To secure the future of Cape Lookout’s cultural resources, the DOI Southeast Climate Science Center is testing a new approach for prioritizing climate adaptation actions. Erin Seekamp, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism at North Carolina State University and a researcher working with the Southeast CSC, is developing a method to identify cultural resources most in need of management action.

Says Seekamp: “Because so many coastal resources are highly vulnerable to climate-related impacts, resource managers will have to make tough decisions about which ones to maintain in their current historic condition, which to adapt using storm-resilient materials, which ones to elevate or move, and which ones to let go.”

The 1859 Cape Lookout Lighthouse and keeper's quarters
The 1859 Cape Lookout Lighthouse and keeper's quarters, Cape Lookout National Seashore. This is one of many cultural resources at Cape Lookout National Seashore that may be threatened by climate change. Credit: Erin Seekamp, North Carolina State University. Public domain.

Seekamp’s method calculates a value for each cultural resource, based on its vulnerability to climate change, its historical significance and its importance for the park’s day-to-day operations and education efforts. These non-monetary scores allow resources to be ranked in terms of their need for management action.

Seekamp is testing this approach in Cape Lookout, where she is ranking 17 buildings in the Portsmouth and Cape Lookout historical districts.

“The districts and their cultural resources are vulnerable to climate change-related impacts such as storm-related flooding and erosion and sea-level rise,” Seekamp said. In fact, an assessment of the vulnerability of the park’s historic buildings, completed by Rob Young of Western Carolina University, rated most of these buildings as highly vulnerable because of storm-related flooding, erosion and sea-level rise.

An essential component of Seekamp’s approach has been active engagement with stakeholders, including personnel with the NPS and the North Carolina State Preservation Office. “Decision-making is a value-laden process and cultural resources are imbued with diverse values. Stakeholders provide guidance on how we determine which factors should be considered, and can help us refine our methods as the project continues,” Seekamp said.

Ultimately, Seekamp hopes that the method her team is developing can be used to prioritize cultural resources beyond Cape Lookout. “After we complete this pilot study, our goal is to develop a process that can be applied to all historic buildings at Cape Lookout, to other types of cultural resources in other parks, and, ultimately, to help the NPS make regional and landscape-level decisions about cultural resource climate adaptation.”

Learn more

The Southeast CSC is part of a national network of eight regional DOI Climate Science Centers, managed by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC). The CSCs provide scientific information to help natural and cultural resource managers respond effectively to climate change.

Climate Change And Your National Parks