Climate Change and Coastal Cultural Heritage: Insights from Three National Parks

Alanna Casey, University of Rhode Island


Global climate change is expected to cause between 30 and 122 centimeters of sea-level rise by 2100, as well as increase the frequency and intensity storm surge, flooding, and erosion in coastal systems (IPCC 2014; Melillo et al. 2014). Consequently, coastal cultural resources including archaeological sites, historic structures, and cultural landscapes, long subject to weathering and erosion, will face more frequent damage and destruction from coastal climate change impacts (Daly 2011b; WHC 2006; Cassar 2005). Current research on coastal climate change impacts examines how sites will be affected by climate change and how managers can adapt sites to reduce these impacts (Adamson, Hannaford, and Rohland 2018). This ahistorical approach decontextualizes climate change adaptation from past management approaches and does not allow for the identification of policies, regulations, or patterns of action that influence or confine the adaptation process. This research employs a historical perspective, viewing coastal management strategies for climate change in light of a longer history of shoreline management, seeing climate change as an increase in the speed and intensity of ongoing change in a historically volatile environment, and considering built adaptations to climate change as a continuation of the tradition of shoreline engineering.^ Drawing on three case studies in the Gulf Coast of Florida and Mississippi, Tidewater Virginia, and the San Francisco Bay Area, California, and employing a combination of 20 key informant interviews with current site managers and archival research at 6 institutions, this research explores how federal managers’ have perceived, created, and responded to environmental change from early European settlement through the present. A combination of qualitative content analysis and document coding revealed historical patterns of site use and coastal modification that have important implications for climate change adaptation.^ At each of the three sites, dominant patterns of local coastal change such as shoreline erosion or barrier island motion, remain important vectors of local climate change. Since the early period of American management, modification and coastal engineering to control these ongoing patterns of coastal change, rather than retreat, has been the dominant response. As such, climate change represents more than just a threat to place, but a threat to American identity as climate change will cause fundamental alterations in the way managers preserve and interact with the shoreline. As managers move forward with climate change adaptations for cultural resources, a long-term look at these landscapes reveals that lost resources do not lose all value, and in addition to prioritization, managers should consider novel methods of preservation through technological innovation, targeted archaeological and historical research, and use- or meaning-based preservation.^

Subject Area

Climate change|Cultural resources management

Recommended Citation

Alanna Casey, "Climate Change and Coastal Cultural Heritage: Insights from Three National Parks" (2018). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI10686989.