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Union of Concerned Scientists Report Highlights Risks to Three Past Watch Sites

In a May 2014 report, National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) discusses the risks of global climate change as they apply to United States National Landmarks. UCS was founded by students and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969. It focuses on combating global warming, increasing sustainability, and reducing nuclear warfare through research, education, and political action.

The report describes the impacts of five results of global climate change—rising sea levels, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and more frequent and damaging wildfires—on a selection of national landmarks. Coincidentally, three of those sites– Ellis Island, Charleston, and Mesa Verde National Park—are also past World Monuments Watch sites. The Watch called attention to a different set of issues at these sites from conservation and maintenance to tourism, planning, and interpretation. Yet what is clear is that many heritage sites are vulnerable in ways that require ever more vigilance, monitoring, and research.

Ellis Island, NY, was the main point of entry for immigrants to the U.S. from 1886 to 1924. By the time it officially closed its doors in 1954, roughly 12 million immigrants had been processed there. After being effectively abandoned in 1951, the island fell into a state of severe disrepair. As a result, the south side of the island, home to an elaborate hospital complex, was included on the 1996 Watch. Following a model stabilization project, support was garnered for preservation efforts and further work was completed. However, as the UCS report states, Ellis Island now faces a new threat: increased flooding resulting from heavier rainfall and higher sea levels. The severity of this problem was illustrated in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy flooded nearly the entire island, forcing it to remain closed for a full year.

Charleston, SC, was founded in 1670 by English colonists and its historic district has since become an important heritage site. The city is a home port for cruise ships, resulting in extreme vehicular traffic. In response, Charleston was included on the 2012 Watch to draw attention to the difficulties of balancing tourism with heritage preservation (an issue that has long been of concern to the city, which pioneered urban preservation in the U.S. in 1931). This was further highlighted in a 2013 symposium co-hosted by WMF regarding cruise tourism in historic port communities. As sea levels, air and ocean temperatures, and precipitation rise, Charleston has experienced severe flooding.

Mesa Verde National Park, CO, established in 1906, was home to the Ancestral Puebloan civilization from the sixth to the thirteenth centuries A.D. They built settlements in alcoves along the canyon walls around the twelfth century before migrating south only a century later. The cliff dwellings were deteriorating when the WMF added Mesa Verde to the 1998 Watch and began restoration efforts. Rising temperatures there have led to more frequent and devastating wildfires including, per the UCS report, "back-to-back fires in the summer of 2000 [which] burned nearly half of [the park’s] 52,000 acres." The damage from forest fires alters soil composition and makes it unable to absorb water, causing flooding, erosion, and damage to archeological sites