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Climate change threatens historic U.S. landmarks, report claims

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The Statute of Liberty The Statute of Liberty

(NBC News) - Climate change is threatening to erase treasured slices of American history, a scientific group asserted Tuesday.

Rising ocean levels, mammoth flooding unleashed by extreme storms, and an expanding spate of wildfires are all putting 30 famous U.S. places under siege –- and some possibly under water, according to a report titled "National Landmarks at Risk."

Authored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit alliance of more than 400,000 biologists, physicists and other citizens based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the report’s list of jeopardized memorials reads like a grade-school history book -– from the Statue of Liberty in New York to California’s 19th-century gold-rush ground.

"You can almost trace the history of the United States through these sites," Adam Markham, director of climate impacts at UCS and report co-author, said in a prepared release.

"The imminent risks to these sites and the artifacts they contain threaten to pull apart the quilt that tells the story of the nation's heritage and history,” Markham added.

The at-risk list, according to the scientists, includes:
  • Jamestown, Virginia: home of the first permanent, English settlement, which “is likely to be submerged by rising seas by the end of the century.”
  • The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Cambridge, Maryland, which also is facing an ocean overrun.
  • Fort Monroe in Virginia, a pivotal place in the ultimate fall of slavery, “will become an island unto itself within 70 years.”
  • Cape Canaveral in Florida, home to Kennedy Space Center where the Apollo rockets began exploring beyond Earth, has already faced storm surges that “regularly breach the dunes near the launch pads” and work efforts to restore those dunes has “been undone by subsequent storms.”
  • The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York Harbor. During Superstorm Sandy, both were submerged, sustaining an estimated $77 million in damage. Closed for repairs, they were re-opened to the public in 2013. But each “may again be in harm’s way,” the report states, due to future storm tides and higher sea levels.
  • In Alaska, winter storms have eroded the coastlines of Cape Krusenstern National Monument and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve – ongoing destruction exacerbated by melting sea ice and thawing permafrost. Consequently, historic artifacts “are actually crumbling out of the shorelines in these Alaskan sites and washing out to sea.”
  • In California’s Sierra Mountains, elevated temperatures are drying the forests and eating into the winter snowpack. Those factors are, in turn, is boosting the risk of huge wildfires in the former Gold Rush country, including the historic Groveland Hotel.
The report’s authors acknowledge the rate of climate encroachment and potentially catastrophic damage are “slow” -- and that pace gives land managers, archaeologists, and preservationists additional time to protect the landmarks.

But the scientists assert that the key to protecting the monuments begins with “significantly” and swiftly cutting carbon emissions to curb the rise of the seas, suppress additional temperature spikes and dampen the growth of wildfire season.

The authors also call on Congress to fund President Barack Obama’s proposed Climate Resilience Fund, which they claim could help cities and businesses to become better protected from the effects of a warming planet.

“The fund could also be used to help protect and preserve the nation's iconic and historical landmarks and irreplaceable archaeological treasures that are being destroyed by sea level rise, wildfire and flooding," said Angela Anderson, director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS.

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