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Historic treasures face potential risk as weather wreaks havoc on sites

Maurice Telleen’s fifth of “Ten commandments of Agrarianism,” in a book about traditional food growing systems that maintain the fertility and ecology of the land, states that the term “my country” is not just about flags, parades and anthems.
It essentially includes “places” – Jefferson’s Virginia and Monticello, Adams’ New England, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and other symbols of our national history.
One of these iconic places – the Alex Haley memorial in Annapolis, Md. – is pictured in a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Of Kunta Kinte only the head and shoulders are visible, the rest of the statuary is submerged under the flood waters of Hurricane Isabel, as are the buildings in the city’s historic preservation district.
The report, “National Landmarks at Risk,” features more than 30 study sites in 15 states which, consequent to the changing climate, are “at risk as never before.”
Chosen because of the robust science regarding the impacts that threaten them – sea level rise and coastal erosion, more frequent large wildfires or increased flooding and heavy rains – they also illustrate the urgent problem of potential loss of many unique historic and scenic places, each a patch of the cultural and geographic “quilt that tells the American story.”
Multiple NASA sites with key roles in the history of space exploration are among them, including the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Hurricane Katrina had caused $760 million in damages to the John C. Dennis Space Center in Mississippi and another facility in Louisiana.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado contains hundreds of cliff dwellings and wall engravings dating to the ancient Pueblo people. Wildfires in the summer of 2000 scorched nearly half the Park’s 52,000 acres and forced the evacuation of a thousand visitors.
The wildfire season in the western U.S. is two months longer now than it was before the 80s decade, and large conflagrations burning more than 1,000 acres have nearly doubled since then.
Off the North Carolina coast, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the nation’s tallest brick lighthouse, had to be moved far inland at the turn of the century, at cost of $11.8 million. In imminent danger from erosion aggravated by sea level rise, at just 120 feet from the tide line then it had been “a comfortable 1,500 feet from the ocean” when it was built, in 1870.
The interest and drive to preserve the visible record of the past began in 1858 with acquisition of George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon as a national shrine.
Today, we can enjoy more than 400 such heritage sites within the Park Service System and more than 80,000 on the National Register of Historic Places.
The stories they tell, as UCS notes, symbolize the values shared by all Americans, “patriotism, freedom, democracy, respect for ancestors, and admiration for the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit.”
We can avert the loss of many of them. We have the means and technology to drastically reduce the carbon pollution that is driving climate change and placing these sites, and communities everywhere, increasingly at risk.