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Climate Change Presents Preservationists With Huge Challenge

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Rising sea levels due to climate change present unforeseen dangers to the future of our coastlines and coastal cities, but according to a recent Al Jazeera article, they also threaten our collective pasts and the budgets of preservation organizations. According to the piece, during the Paris climate talks, preservationists and preservation organizations are holding their own meetings and events to continue discussions on how rising oceans, as well as increased wildfire and storm risks brought on by warmer weather, may also damage and endanger significant structures vital to our collective cultural heritage. As previous analyses of the scope of the problem suggest, it's a significant threat.

Annapolis, and the hallowed grounds of the Naval Academy, have been cited as a prime example of what's at stake, and how preservationists may soon be faced with a number of difficult decisions. Historic storms such as 2003's Hurricane Isabel swamped the city's historic district and its irreplaceable Revolutionary-era structures. With scientists forecasting near daily flooding becoming the norm in the city in roughly 30 years, persistent water damage may quickly overwhelm whatever amount of money can be dedicated to restoring and protecting priceless buildings.

Evolving weather patterns nationwide have put numerous other heritage sites under increased threat. Droughts in California have exposed Native American historic sites (and the artifacts buried within) to increased looting and plundering. Adam Markham, the director of the Climate Impacts Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists, identified other historic waterfront neighborhoods such as St. Augustine, Florida, Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, as at-risk, and suggested other side effects of a warmer climate, such as warmer winters and a more aggressive thawing cycle, may damage historic masonry and facades. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists identified iconic structures such as Boston's Faneuil Hall and Jamestown, Virginia, as two of many threatened national landmarks.

The government's response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 offered a window into how future climate challenges may affect historic preservation. After the storm damaged the coast, the National Park Service spent $300 million to rebuild parks around the region, but the bulk of the money has been spent at iconic sites such as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, suggesting that smaller sites may be left out. The effort to protect and preserve strains budgets, but according to Marcy Rockman, climate change adaptation coordinator for cultural resources in the National Park Service's Washington, D.C., office, the situation makes preserving the past even more important, since it serves as a lesson and mirror on "what we mean by a sustainable society."

While preservation organization have been discussing the issue for years, a more comprehensive study and response hasn't been advanced. Earlier this year, leading preservationists in the United States signed the Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage, which asks governments to begin studying ways to address the issue, and earlier this week in Paris, top preservationists from around the world held a meeting to discuss the issue. Other initiatives, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Green Lab, have sought ways to make older structures more sustainable, and part of the solution to mitigating climate change. But any lasting solution would require a significant investment in resources that may be spread thin across many important sites.

· Climate change threatens to wash away cultural history [Al Jazeera]
· Reconciling Rising Sea Levels and Luxury Development in Miami Beach [Curbed]
· #ThisPlaceMatters, a Celebration of Personal Landmarks Across America [Curbed]
· How a Kentucky Town Saved Its Last, Best Midcentury Building [Curbed]