Over the next few months, The Marjorie will dedicate its resources to exploring the immediate threats posed by sea level rise to Florida’s cultural heritage. From centuries-old cemeteries to indigenous shell mounds, we will look at what historic and heritage sites mean to Floridians, what communities are doing to preserve them, and how we’ll all cope with irreplaceable losses.

What’s happening:With at least three feet of sea level rise expected by 2100 statewide, more than 16,000 archeological sites are at risk and preserving all of them isn’t possible, reported NPR in 2020. To visualize what an increase of three feet looks like, use this tool. Around 1,539 sites are located at or below sea level in Florida. By 2100, up to 6,820 sites will become inundated as sea levels rise, according to this piece by The Conversation. Other cultural heritage sites and historic buildings are also at risk.

In places like St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, just a meter of water would affect about 80% of the city’s historic districts, a 2016 report by the State of Florida and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found. For years, archeologists have been racing against the climate change clock to protect sites or haul them to higher ground. Underwater archeologists say storm surges and violent storms pose an immediate threat to shipwrecks and other sites offshore, reported Wired.

With at least three feet of sea level rise expected by 2100 statewide, more than 16,000 archeological sites are at risk. Image credit: NOAA

Why we’re tackling this now: Almost 20,000 archeological sites from Maryland to Louisiana are in danger of being destroyed by three feet of sea level rise, showed a 2017 study. With thousands more heritage and historic sites at risk, it’s important to prioritize what sites to save now. Preserving our cultural heritage deepens our sense of self and strengthens our sense of unity and belonging to our communities. And, when looking at previous coverage of this topic, we see an opportunity for fresh perspectives and a closer, local look.

Solutions:In most coastal places, solutions will be temporary. Hakai Magazine described it like this last year: “Flood protection poses challenges for any structure, but historic ones have particular vulnerabilities. Even when it’s physically possible to haul a historic building out of harm’s way, put a dam around it, or patch it with modern materials, such changes may erase the details that inform interpretation of its history.” Historical engineering could help us keep rising seas at bay. Other experts say enhancing natural structures—such as barrier islands, sea grass, and marshes—can work like seawalls to absorb rising waters and storm surge. But the best chance of saving our heritage from a watery future is to reduce our carbon emissions. Although, it’s already too late to save it all.   

The lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge was built in 1830 and has endured over 100 storms. Photo credit: Canva

What to expect from us: Short articles, vignettes, and social media content dedicated to this topic, all culminating in a long-form piece that zeros in on the local context of an important site in South Florida to be published in early spring. We’ll look at how preserving these sites are prioritized among mitigating other climate impacts in our state, and how that response compares to other states. And we’ll ask the question: How will losing sites change Florida’s culture and heritage going forward?