Renowned coastal historic sites and monuments such as the White House, Lincoln Monument, Jamestown, and thousands of archeological gems are at risk as sea levels continue to rise, according to a recent study published by a group of researchers led by IU South Bend Associate Professor of Anthropology and Social Informatics Josh Wells. “Just in the remainder of this century, if trends in sea level rise continue, 13,000 recorded archeological sites in the Southeast alone will be submerged,” said Wells, “including 1,000 listed as important cultural properties on the National Register of Historic Places.”
The results of the study, published in PLOS ONE, came from analysis of data gathered by the Digital Index of North American Archeology(DINAA). DINAA aggregates archaeological and historical data sets developed over the past century from numerous sources, providing the public and research communities with a comprehensive window into human settlement. “One of the reasons DINAA has received so much attention is it is available to researchers and public to use as they see fit,” said Wells.
Since the study's publication, Wells has been quoted in USA Today, Wired, and National Geographic and the research has also been covered by The Guardian, Washington Post, Pacific Standard, and other publications. More important to the authors, policymakers and researchers have already been in touch about using the results and the DINAA data. To date, data has been compiled from eight states, encompassing the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the southeastern United States from Maryland to the Texas-Louisiana border. “The data comes from various government data bases,” explained Wells. “It came in completely different structures and formats and was never built to be a scientific tool.” Wells, Dr. David G. Anderson and Stephen Yerka of the University of Tennessee, Dr. Eric Kansa of Open Context & UC Berkley School of Information, and Dr. Sarah Kansa of Alexandria Archive Institute developed protocols to integrate the data from large areas in North America into a unified data base.
In addition to the loss of archeological sites in the southeastern coastal region, the effects of the current trending sea level rise on the populations living in or near coastal areas are immense. According to the study, with a three-foot rise, three million people could be displaced across the southeast United States. “A mass movement inland could destroy inland historical sites and ones not yet discovered,” said Wells. Climate change has precipitated a multitude of extreme weather threats to the people, structures, and historical and archeological sites along the coasts of the southeastern United States. The study points out that protective walls could be built to keep sea levels at bay, but Wells added that it’s unlikely there will be enough financial and societal resources to protect the entire coastline.
“We have compiled the information for most of the eastern United States. The results of the study confirm that the consequences are grave for archeological sites and populations near the coast as sea levels rise, explained Wells. “It’s imperative that we begin the discussion now about what is it we want to save.”