Safeguarding Our Cultural Past from Future Climate Change: Stories from Jamestown

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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?

Painting - the construction of James Fort, by Sidney E. King
The construction of James Fort (Credit: Sidney E. King, artist. Permission for use by National Park Service)

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 places like Jamestown, the country’s earliest European settlement.

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 second of a two-part series on climate change and cultural resources, we look at research to help NPS managers preserve historic sites and structures. Part One, about our maritime heritage at Cape Lookout National Seashore, can be read here

Jamestown, cultural resources and climate change

Jamestown, Virginia, is the site where settlers founded the first permanent English colony in the New World more than 400 years ago. Though Jamestown itself was unoccupied when Europeans arrived in 1607, a thriving Native American population, belonging mainly to the powerful Powhatan Chiefdom, inhabited the area.

Today this famed site, part of Virginia’s Colonial National Historical Park, is surrounded by water on three sides and faces rising seas, more extreme rainfall and floods and increased erosion. Hurricanes may also be intensifying, bringing stronger winds, heavier rains and higher storm surge. 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who visited the park in 2014 to highlight climate change threats, said: "It's very clear we have global warming and sea-level rise and this is a hot spot for it. And what's at risk is the history of our country."

The 17th- century Jamestown Church in Jamestown, Virginia
The 17th-century Jamestown Church is the last surviving above-ground structure in Jamestown, and is one of the oldest surviving buildings built by Europeans in the original thirteen colonies. Part of the church was reconstructed in 1907 on the original foundations. NPS photo

At the park, researchers with the NPS Northeast Region, the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center and the Department of the Interior Northeast Climate Science Center are assessing which climate stressors -- such as temperature, extreme rainfall, flooding, sea-level rise or drought -- pose the greatest threat to the park, and which resources are most vulnerable to those stressors.

“The impacts of climate change vary from place to place, so it’s critical that we understand the unique ways any given place interacts with and responds to climate,” said Alex Bryan, a climatologist with the Northeast CSC and a project team member.

What’s more, the region has already begun to experience change. Over the past century, warming has led to decreased annual snowfall totals and more winter precipitation falling as rain. Perhaps most worryingly, the sea level has risen more than half a foot in 50 years. A one and a half-foot rise in sea level would put more than half of Jamestown Island under water.

According to Bryan, this is one of the biggest challenges facing the park. “Sea-level rise and elevated storm surge allow waves to push further inland, causing immense erosion, flooding and saltwater exposure to park areas and historic sites that have never before experienced these conditions.”

For example, Jamestown’s most visited landmark, James Fort, is an active archaeological site located just feet from the tidally influenced James River. “One corner of the triangular fort is already in the river – which goes to show the urgency of understanding sea-level rise in the park,” said Bryan.

Photo of the 1607 location of James Fort in Jamestown, Virginia
The 1607 location of James Fort in Jamestown, Virginia. Credit: NPS
A building frame inside James Fort, Jamestown, Virginia.
A building frame inside James Fort, Jamestown, Virginia. NPS photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To help the park preserve its Native American and early European settler sites and artifacts, Bryan and his colleagues are using computer models to determine which areas are most susceptible to the impacts of climate change going forward. Armed with this information, park managers can prioritize the most at-risk resources in their preservation efforts. For example, the project team is using sea-level rise models in combination with detailed park elevation data to identify the areas most likely to be underwater by the end of the century – providing invaluable information to park staff as they work to determine which artifacts will need to be relocated.

“Visitors today get to stroll the landscapes and peer out on the James River, experiencing the sights and sounds as the early settlers would have,” says Bryan. “That experience is what makes Colonial National Historical Park unique and special, and it is the park’s goal to preserve that experience and that part of our country’s history.”

The foundation of row houses in the New Towne section of Jamestown
The foundation of row houses in the New Towne section of Jamestown, where settlers expanded to live in the 1620s. NPS photo

Read more: Historic Jamestown: Assessing the Climate Change Impacts on North America’s First European Settlement

Learn more

The Northeast 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

Main Image caption: The Jamestown settlement in the early years. Credit: Sidney E. King (permission to use photo by the NPS)