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Climate Change Threatens Cultural Resources

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

By Heather A. Wholey, Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, West Chester University

Cultural heritage resources, both established and undiscovered archeological and historic sites, are being rapidly damaged by the environmental impacts of climate change, often their cultural and scientific value destroyed forever. Such threats are of urgent concern worldwide, as they can be devastating to the past that the community’s value and wish to preserve and bring into the future.

The Delaware Bay Climate and Archaeology Project is a geo-archaeology project co-directed by West Chester University professors Dr. Heather Wholey (archaeologist), and Dr. Daria Nikitina (geologist), and has involved fieldwork with their team of undergraduate and graduate students each summer since 2017. Our goal is to study and document immediate and long-term climate threats to the archaeological and heritage resources of the Delaware Bay.

The Delaware Bay is the second-largest estuary along the Atlantic coast and is experiencing some of the gravest effects from climate-driven sea-level rise along the eastern seaboard. The coastal areas are often at an elevation of one meter or less and subject to daily tidal action, storm surge, land subsidence, and long-term inundation. The broad, flat coastal areas are also subject to the violent effects of hurricanes and superstorms. The area around the Bay that is now Delaware and New Jersey has been inhabited for at least the past 13,000 years and was one of the most culturally diverse areas in colonial America, having been inhabited by Swedes, Dutch, Finns, Native Americans, and Africans. Legacies of these early occupations exist within numerous buried archaeological sites and myriad above ground historical resources. Native American villages, 17th-century Dutch colonies; 18th-century maritime sites; 19th-century resort towns; historic glass-making, canneries, and textiles industries; and, World War II defensive installations are all at risk of being lost to rising seas and devastating storms.

We have already overlain probabilistic sea levels (Kopp et al 2010) with known the cultural resources, yielding site-specific models that can be observed at the decadal level over the next eight decades. At least seventy-eight sites will likely be lost or compromised by the year 2030, and hundreds more by the year 2100.

Our current work is three-pronged: to visit the sites most immediately threatened to establish baseline conditions for future monitoring; to survey areas unexplored regions to document their potential to yield cultural resources; and, to develop case studies that broadly illustrate the scale of threats to know and yet undiscovered resources.

To document immediately threatened sites, we record high and low tide conditions at site frontages, overlay historical maps and imagery, and photograph current conditions. To assess the potential for discovery of undocumented resources we need to visit remote places that are usually accessible only by boat or by traversing broad expanses of salt marsh. We take a motorized flat bottomed jon boat through the shallow tidal creeks to reach remote dryland hummocks that are sinking into the surrounding marsh. Our boat trips must be scheduled with the incoming and outgoing tides and multiple trips are needed to transport the team members and the equipment. In fact, we have modified existing field equipment to reduce overall weight and mass and thus the number of trips needed.

Despite these highly coordinated journeys, we were once trapped underneath a draw bridge at high tide when the bridge operator misjudged the current and failed to raise it in time for us to pass through. We had to use our shovels and oars to dislodge ourselves from the navigational lights that we were hung upon. One student team member was a Marine Corps veteran and joked that he had not made himself that small in years. To reach the remote hummocks we have to first cross the mudflats and then traverse the marsh. After cutting marsh grass to create a ‘carpet’ to cross on, we finally decided to bring an actual carpet to aid us in crossing without sinking. Our work in the marsh involves sediment coring to refine our chronology for past sea levels. Working on the marsh requires being nimble on one’s feet, not standing in one place for too long and not walking in the footsteps of someone ahead of you. At least daily someone would begin to sink into the marsh and after pulling them out we would have to dig their boot out with a shovel.

Once on dry land on the hummock, we conduct an archaeological survey. This work has yielded cultural resources and indicates the potential for these locations to increase our understanding of past and future environmental conditions, and our understanding of the cultural legacies of the Delaware Bay. After long days in the field and several adventures and misadventures, we usually bond over cold drinks, good seafood, and a beach campfire along the beautiful Delaware Bay.

This project is funded by a National Geographic Explorer’s award.

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