“Extinction tourism” is a familiar term when it comes to wildlife and natural habitats: it’s described as a desire to see the animals and landscapes that are just managing to hang on before they’re gone. That aspiration seems apropos when it comes to Mexico’s monarch butterflies and their fragile wintering grounds or the Great Bear Rain Forest and its rare spirit bears, threatened by logging operations.
Recently, however, I saw an article that listed several iconic edifices that are in danger of being destroyed due to human-induced climate change. Is it possible that some of our long-standing, centuries-old (in some cases), erected monuments could also become “extinct” in our lifetimes?
Can—and should—extinction tourism now be applied to buildings?
Rising seas and more “wild” fires
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) keeps a list of sites (natural and man-made) it calls World Heritage in Danger. Most of the places on that list, however, are at risk due to military conflict or civil disturbance in the region, lack of legal protection or adequate oversight, damage due to water leaks, looting or uncontrolled urban development. Rarely is climate change mentioned as a culprit, if at all.
In May 2014, however, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of more than 400,000 citizens and scientists, released a report titled National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods and Wildfires are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites. At least 30 major historic buildings in the United States were included, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York; the Johnson Space Center in Texas; the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; the Gold Rush-era town of Groveland, California; and historic Jamestown in Virginia. The report’s authors state that in 2012, Hurricane Sandy closed down the Statue of Liberty and that floodwaters inundated 75 percent of Liberty Island and almost all of Ellis Island. Over the last century, the New York City area has seen a foot of sea-level rise. At the Johnson Space Center, more than 160 buildings sustained damage from Hurricane Ike; at the Kennedy Space Center, storm surges regularly breach the dunes near the launch pads; and Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, is likely to be submerged by rising seas by the end of this century. Climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent fires in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—such as the 2013 Rim Fire in Groveland, California, near Yosemite National Park, the state’s third largest wildfire on record—by driving up temperatures and drying out forests for longer periods.
In conjunction with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report release, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the archaeological heritage of the Americas and the world, issued a statement calling for more attention to be paid to preserving endangered archaeological sites. It marks the first time the SAA has sought to draw public attention to damage caused by rapid climate change.
Scaremongers and attention-grabbers
According to its authors, the National Landmarks at Risk report is not slated for publication in a scientific journal. It is not a peer-reviewed study. That causes some to believe that the publication was only meant to grab headlines and garner attention. Skeptics of human-caused climate change say it is just another scaremongering tactic and that most of the examples included in the article are located in areas where natural climate extremes would pose significant threats and expose vulnerabilities anyway. For example, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina, one of the sites listed, has been moved multiple times due to shifting sands on the Outer Banks, which are, essentially, sandbars that have always shifted.
In fact, even the report’s authors acknowledge the rate of climate encroachment and potentially catastrophic damage is “slow.” Their hope, they say, is that such a pace will give managers, archaeologists and preservationists additional time to protect the landmarks.
The issue of whether our rapidly changing climate is human-caused or not is still being debated in the United States Congress, with a split along political party lines. Given our slow pace, could a report that at the very least shines a spotlight on the different kinds of climate impacts already affecting the cultural heritage of the United States hurt?
Do you think that there are some iconic buildings that we’re now in danger of losing solely because of rapid climate change? Or have these structures always been in peril, naturally?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,