Rising sea levels will take with them the evidence we ever existed

A picture of wishful thinking.
A picture of wishful thinking.
Image: Creative Commons/Ahmad Reza
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DINAA map.
DINAA partnerships as of July 2017. The black dots represent archaeological sites that organization has received data for thus far.
Image: DINAA via Pos One

Right now, predicting the future is a dismal business. In the long view, scientists say prospects are not good for Earth, not at land or sea, not for humanity or the things we’ve built.

The latest evidence for the likelihood of a dire future comes in a study published in Plos One this week (Nov. 29). A team of researchers led by University of Tennessee-Knoxville archaeologist David Anderson examined the predicted effects of rising waters caused by global warming on nine southeast US states, and estimate that the phenomenon that will slowly displace millions of people in coastal regions and take with them thousands of archaeological sites, historic buildings, cemeteries, monuments, and more.

Based on a wide range of data from the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA) and geographic and temporal scales, the researchers predict that little trace of the region’s treasured and protected cultural sites will remain as the waters rise. Just a one-meter (three-foot) rise in water levels will destroy 13,000 archaeological sites in the southeast US and 1,000 historically important sites eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The scientists say that’s likely to happen in the next century.

Projecting cultural destruction due to rising seas in the Southeastern US.
Projections of cultural destruction due to rising seas in the southeastern US.
Image: DINAA via Plos One

The damage and loss rises incrementally with sea levels, which are predicted to occur in the centuries following. At a five-meter rise in ocean levels, 32,000 archaeological sites will be lost forever, along with 2,400 NRHP locations.

Unfortunately, that’s likely the lower level of the estimate. DINAA, a large-scale effort to collate historical-site information from many institutions, gave the researchers pretty good information to work with, but the data set is still imprecise, and, likely, undercounts the total number of sites in range of the predicted deluge. ”Many more unrecorded archaeological and historic sites will also be lost as large areas of the landscape are flooded,” according to the study.

The big picture is not pretty. Rising seas will destroy “much of the record of human habitation of the coastal margin in the southeast within the next century to two centuries” the study concludes. Of course, as the researchers warn in the study, this analysis of potential destruction in the southeastern US is just a small snapshot of the global cultural devastation to come if climate change continues apace or worsens.