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Archaeologists Race Against The Clock To Protect Florida’s History From Climate Change

Michael Thomin

Florida has nearly 4,000 archaeological sites along its coast. Each of them helps tell the story of the Sunshine State. But erosion, sea level rise, and intense storms caused by climate change are threatening to wipe out centuries of history. The question remains how archaeologists will preserve this history before it’s too late.

To solve this problem, the Florida Public Archaeology Network hosted the Tidally United Summit Aug. 16 at the Museum of Commerce. Environmental activists, historians and archaeologists met to hear how others are dealing with the crisis both in Florida and across the world.

Ellie Graham is a research assistant at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She gave the keynote address at the summit and says archaeologists everywhere are facing the climate change dilemma.

“Coastal change, erosion, sea-level rise has been identified as the single biggest natural threat to our archaeology,” Graham said.

Credit Michael Thomin
Ellie Graham presents her keynote address at the Tidally United Summit on how solutions for Scotland's coast and archaeology can serve as a guide for Florida's disappearing sites.

Her experience preserving archaeological sites in Scotland is especially relevant to Florida’s coastline. Though average temperatures may differ between the two regions, Graham says there’s more in common than meets the eye.

“So much of [Scotland’s] coastline is soft," she said. "It's vulnerable. It's low-lying sandy coastline, so it’s similar to your coastline here as well. Which means a little bit of sea level rise, big waves can really impact the coastline, and cause a huge movement of erosion, inundate landscapes and take meters and meters of land in a single storm event.”

Dr. William Lees is the executive director of FPAN and says a changing climate means changing priorities for the archaeological community. Instead of letting archaeologists explore any site they are interested in, there’s been a push to focus on coastal sites.

“We've been monitoring some sites up in Northeast Florida that we thought we'd have 10-15 years to work on and we think they may be gone in a couple years now.”

Credit Abigail Megginson
Executive Director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network Dr. Williams Lees encourages archaeologists to be strategic and prioritize sites along Florida's coastline that have the least amount of time left.

One of the biggest challenges to recording these disappearing sites is knowing which ones to look at first. With thousands of sites, Lees says FPAN’s approach has to be strategic.

“Our approach is to start by trying to go to all the coastal sites, see what condition they're in right now and monitor them and see what happening because they’re not all being lost at the same rate so we want to understand what’s being lost most quickly,” Lees said.

But, archaeologists are in short supply. Even if all the archaeologists available did commit to exploring and documenting these sites, there wouldn’t be enough time. Sarah Miller is the regional director for the Northeast and East Central centers for FPAN. One of their solutions is to bring in the public. Heritage Monitoring Scouts is an FPAN program that recruits and trains volunteers to go to sites and document their condition and provide updates.

“We really need the help to get out in the next few years take a look at sites, assess their condition and see if anything can be done, anything needs to be studied before they’re lost,” Miller said.

Having enough volunteers to record those facts is essential. But Miller says community involvement is not just about recruiting a certain number of people. The public also helps FPAN prioritize which sites are most important.

“We just have this sincere want and need to collaborate with the communities, see what's important to them. At the end of the day, I don’t want to save the site that is most significant to me. I want to find the heart of the community and hear what they’re interested in.”

Though many of these sites are running out of time, Ellie Graham believes both Scotland and Florida still have time to save their history.

“The sea level rise, erosion is giving us a window into the past. So, we need to get in there and look through it and learn about the past before it’s completely lost forever.”

To help preserve Florida’s past, visit flpublicarchaeology.org and sign up to volunteer with the Heritage Monitoring Scouts.