Are We Now Losing Our Most Iconic Buildings Due to Climate Change?

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 8, 2014 6

In 1999, the Cape Hatteras Light Station had to be relocated 2,900 feet from the spot on which it had stood since 1870. Beach erosion was the reason. ©James Jordan, flickr

“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?

Some of our most iconic structures, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York, are in jeopardy because of rapid climate change.

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.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida may have to abandon some of its launchpads within a decade because of rising seas due to climate change.

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 2013 Rim Fire in Groveland, California, near Yosemite National Park, was the state’s third largest wildfire on record. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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,



  1. Brittany@GreenGlobalTravel April 27, 2015 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your post! Climate change may be acting slow now, but someday we may reach a threshold in which it will escalate rapidly and cause natural disasters to rapidly increase in severity. If we don’t act soon, we may lose a lot more than our national monuments.

  2. Venkatasamy Ramakrishna July 19, 2014 at 4:14 am - Reply

    We are losing them Candice, not only to the effects of climate change, but wars and civil unrest, to political haste in putting development before anything else, and most importantly to politicians and businesses who decide that some these iconic buildings and sites are no longer functional or of any economic importance.

  3. Jon July 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    “Recently, however, I saw an article that listed several iconic edifices that are in danger of being destroyed due to human-induced climate change.”
    Therein lies the rub.Is it really “human-induced” climate change or is it the natural progression of the environment? I do not believe that a high percentage of Congress does not believe in climate change. There is evidence all around us of a changing environment. Disputing climate change is not the issue…it appears that disputing what causes climate change is. When I see an article by 400,000 “citizens and scientists” that is not peer-reviewed nor printed in a professional journal, I tend to question its credibility. There is just way too much fear mongering out there by well-intentioned, if not somewhat nefarious, individuals and groups. Former VP Al Gore is one of those attention grabbers who is paid very well for doing it.

    Recently, I spoke with Dr. Willy Reay of the Chesapeake Bay National Estaurine Reserve in Virginia. His concern is that the public (and Congress) is so focused on how much humans affect climate change that we are missing the forest for the trees. He has conducted scientific research regarding rising sea levels and the evidence is indisputable. The focus should be; lets gather information and report to local governments and coastal communites about the impact that rising sea levels are having on our environment and then decide what we can reasonably do about it. Indeed, the Chesapeake Bay Sentinal Site Cooperative of which he is a steering committee member, has as its mission: “To provide long term data, information, tools, and educational resources, derived from downscaled observations collected at a network of sentinel sites, to inform decision-makers and coastal communities about the impacts of rising sea levels.” I agree with Dr. Reay…and also with Ms. Andrews when she writes: ” 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?”

  4. Steve Williams July 10, 2014 at 8:51 am - Reply

    I agree that climate change is real, and its effects on all aspects of our natural environment will be profound.
    I also believe there is another, just as insidious, agent at work – no staff and/or budget for addressing deferred maintenance on our Park Buildings. As I travel around the National, State & Local Parks in California, I see a number of historic buildings, some of which will be in dire straits, or become derelict, if their physical structure is allowed to decline further. None of these buildings or structures are ever likely to be “front page news”, yet they represent an historical legacy of how our system of Parks were established.

  5. Bobbi Beyer July 10, 2014 at 8:50 am - Reply

    The reason why our government won’t do anything until it is too late is that a high percentage of Congress does not believe in climate change. They refuse to believe any documented evidence as fact and therefore will do nothing.

  6. Jim Weeder July 10, 2014 at 8:50 am - Reply

    The sad thing is the government will not do anything until it is too late.

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