When Hurricane Isabel struck Hampton Roads in 2003, flooding at Jamestown damaged nearly a million artifacts and submerged the remains of a 400-year-old furnace.
Jamestown Island proper and the archaeological dig at its historic fort, built by the country's first permanent European settlers, fared better than the National Park Service's damaged collection. But an archaeologist at the site still worries about even worse floods threatened by climate change.
"Especially hurricanes," said Bill Kelso, director of archaeological research and interpretation for the Historic Jamestown Rediscovery Project. "The swell (during Isabel) — it didn't affect the fort. It was nine feet and it didn't get into the site. I mean, it got close, so hurricanes — it makes me very nervous."
Climate scientists say Atlantic hurricanes are growing stronger and more intense, fueled by warmer air and ocean temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels.
Now Jamestown is one of four historic sites in Virginia included in a new report released Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS, on the risks of climate change to national landmarks. The other three sites are Fort Monroe in Hampton, NASA Langley Research Center, also in Hampton, and NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore.
The report is called "National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires are Threatening the United States' Most Cherished Historic Sites." It describes 30 sites from Alaska and Hawaii to Massachusetts and Florida, but says it expects Virginia's to be among the hardest hit by coastal waters that could swell by two feet by 2050, and by six feet by the end of the century.
Kelso said their excavation of a well dug in 1611 shows it took four centuries for the water table to rise two feet.
"It is a tragic loss for the nation that most of Jamestown is likely to be submerged by rising seas," Adam Markham, director of climate impacts at UCS and report co-author, said in a release. "And Fort Monroe, which played a crucial role in the fall of slavery, will likely become an island unto itself within several generations."
At Fort Monroe, storm surge from Isabel hit five and a half feet and inflicted more than $100 million in damages, the report notes. Afterward, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers built a new seawall, but considered only historic rates of sea level rise, not the accelerated rates now predicted. Already, according to the report, basements at the fort are flooding regularly, because of storms and exceptionally high tides, and untreated waste is flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
At Jamestown, too, the National Park Service took proactive measures after Isabel against future floods and storm surges. It tore down its damaged artifact storage facility and built a new one on higher ground next to the sturdy storage vault at historic Jamestown. Kelso said it's 11 feet above sea level and built to survive a 100-year flood, with pumps underneath and a generator.
The NPS also built riprap, or large stone breakwaters, around Jamestown to help guard against erosion. But whenever the waters rise, they still threaten access to and from the island itself, Kelso said.
Also, archaeologists there have had to change their way of thinking, he said. Typically, they would leave part of a dig untouched for future archaeologists with better tools and techniques. Now they're not sure if underground artifacts will survive climate change.
At NASA Langley, scientists have been studying the Earth's evolving climate for years, but the report notes that even the research center, along with NASA's historic flight facility on Wallops Island, aren't immune to its effects.
Wallops was established in 1945, and since then has launched more than 16,000 rockets for scientific study and military missions. Most recently it transformed itself into an "on-ramp to the International Space Station," hosting commercial launches to resupply the station and its crew.
Built on a barrier island barely above sea level, it's considered vital to NASA for its geographic seclusion, low population and secure airspace with no commercial traffic.
But the sea level at Wallops has risen more than nine inches since 1945, the report says. And when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, it ripped out more than 700 feet of a protective sand barrier NASA had just built, 20 percent of the beach, and damaged buildings and infrastructure.
At NASA Langley, storm surge during Isabel reached more than five feet, and the facility was closed for a week. It's now in the midst of a 20-year "revitalization" that involves shrinking and consolidating its core campus on some of the highest ground at Langley, partly out of consideration for flooding exacerbated by rising sea levels, said spokesman Mike Finneran.
"We are also constructing our new buildings to a higher finished elevation," Finneran said, "so that, individually, they will be more resistant to flooding, as well."
To slow the pace of sea level rise and offer more time to preserve these and other historic sites, the UCS report calls on cutting carbon emissions "significantly and quickly." It also calls on Congress to fund the Climate Reliance Fund proposed by President Barack Obama to help municipalities and businesses adapt to climate change, and better protect the nation's historical treasures.