Study finds knowledge gaps on protecting cultural sites from climate change

March 2, 2017, North Carolina State University
Cape Lookout lighthouse and 1873 keeper's dwelling at the national seashore in North Carolina. Credit: Erin Seekamp, North Carolina State University

North Carolina's Cape Lookout lighthouse has survived threats ranging from Civil War raids to multiple hurricanes, but the Outer Banks site can't escape climate-related changes such as rising sea levels, coastal erosion and flooding from stronger storms.

A North Carolina State University study in Climatic Change found little research exists on how to protect cultural resources like those at Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 56-acre site that includes historic buildings in addition to the iconic lighthouse and scenic beaches.

"Cultural heritage sites provide a lot of benefits, from sociocultural value in giving a community its unique identity to economic benefits from recreation and tourism," says lead author Sandra Fatoric, a postdoctoral researcher with NC State's College of Natural Resources. "We see a significant gap in knowledge of how to adapt to climate change and preserve cultural resources for future generations."

Researchers searched worldwide for peer-reviewed studies of cultural resources - archaeological sites, natural landscapes and historic buildings - at risk due to climate change. About 60 percent of the studies referenced sites in Europe, most commonly in the United Kingdom. Another 17 percent of the research covered sites in North America, a majority of them in the United States. About 11 percent dealt with resources in Australia and the Pacific Islands and 10 percent mentioned Asia, mostly China. All but six of the 124 studies were published in English-language journals, with South America and Africa rarely represented in the research.

"We were struck by how recent much of the research was, with the first article appearing in 2003," Fatoric says, adding there's a need for more multidisciplinary work and research that involves local residents and stakeholders. "That process reveals what a community most values about a site."

Co-author Erin Seekamp, an associate professor and tourism extension specialist in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at NC State, is working with stakeholders to set priorities for protecting cultural resources at Cape Lookout as part of a project with the Department of Interior's Southeast Climate Science Center. Seekamp and Fatoric are evaluating 17 buildings in terms of their significance and their value to the site's operations, working with managers from the National Park Service and North Carolina State Preservation Office. The research team, which includes U.S. Geological Survey analysts Mitch Eaton and Max Post van der Burg, is combining this information with earlier research by Western Carolina University's Rob Young which found that most of the buildings at Cape Lookout are at high risk from flooding, erosion and rising sea levels.

"We're looking at all of the options for each structure," Seekamp says. "Which buildings should be maintained? Which could be moved to higher ground? Does that change the character of the site? Does changing a building's use - from storage to visitor programs, for example - affect its relative value?"

An overview of Seekamp's research is part of a National Park Service report titled "Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy", which ranked as the most downloaded government website document in the week following the 2017 presidential inauguration, according to the Washington Post.

"Park managers face difficult decisions in prioritizing which resources to protect," Seekamp says. "We hope to develop a method that will help with decisions on protecting Cape Lookout's historic buildings as well as informing policy for protecting cultural resources at other national parks facing climate adaptation."

Explore further: Study shows disaster plans often neglect historic preservation

More information: "Are cultural heritage and resources threatened by climate change? A systematic literature review" Climatic Change, 2017.

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1 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2017
Cape Lookout lighthouse is threatened by natural erosion that has nothing to do with so-called "climate change". The sandy barrier islands of North Carolina are constantly shifting and eroding due to storms and changing currents.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse, also located on North Carolina's Outer Banks at a sandy point almost identical to Cape Lookout's location, was moved 2900 feet to protect it for another 100 years from the eroding shoreline. It cost $11.8 million to move, nearly three and a half times the inflation-adjusted cost to build the original lighthouse ($167,000 in 1871 is equivalent to $3.4 million in 2016).

Sandy barrier islands are lousy building sites for permanent structures. Tearing down the old lighthouse and building one that can withstand being eventually inundated by the ocean would probably save a lot of money.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2017
While climate change is undeniable scientific fact and no doubt a few, probably not most, cultural sites may be adversely effect, we don't need cultural sites so I don't see what the big deal is if we lost a few.
Loosing cultural sites to climate change should be the least of our concerns; what about loosing our food security to climate change? We NEED food. We don't need cultural sites.

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