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'We may be running out of time': Sea level rise, increased flooding threaten historic resources

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Sea levels are rising in the Delaware Bay faster than in other places. Experts are sounding the alarm about the threat to historic resources. 

Coastal flooding will intensify as sea levels continue to rise and storms become more frequent and powerful. This presents a problem for those documenting the past, as much of Delaware’s human history is clustered around its coast and waterways. 

“Delaware is almost the poster child for this issue,” said Mike McGrath, president of the statewide nonprofit Preservation Delaware. 

McGrath notes the First State has the lowest mean elevation of any state in the country. 

“From the time William Penn landed in New Castle, our whole business, economics, lifestyle has been tied to the ocean, the bay and the river,” said McGrath. “Then if you look at the archaeological record of the original people, our Native Americans, that’s where they lived. From what we know about their culture and economy, it was based along the seashore.”

Heather Wholey is a West Chester University professor of anthropology and an archaeologist specializing in mid-Atlantic pre-history. She says sea level rise and increased flooding are an issue for researchers. 

“We’re recognizing that we may be running out of time to study these things, so we have to accelerate the pace of our work,” she said. 

Wholey says that means focusing local archaeological research on areas like salt marshes, which are coastal wetlands flooded and drained by tides. 

West Chester University professor Daria Nikitina studies sea level rise on the Atlantic coast and is on the Delaware Sea Level Rise Technical Committee. She says preparing to protect historic resources from sea level rise involves prioritization. 

“Looking into that with understanding that we cannot save it all,” said Nikitina. “What needs to be saved, and in what way?”

Nikitina and Wholey say the Cape Henlopen Archeological District, many historic areas of Lewes and the Port Penn historic district are likely threatened by the increased flooding that climate change will bring. 

McGrath says several well known historic landmarks may also be threatened, such as a boyhood home of Caesar Rodney in Kent County, the George Reed House along the Delaware River in New Castle, the concrete military observation towers along Delaware’s coast and the lifesaving stations at several beaches. 

Wholey notes there are existing frameworks, such as the National Register of Historic Places, that could be used to help prioritize certain resources for preservation in the face of climate change. 

“But then again, we recognize that there are places that don’t fall within that framework, so they’re kind of off the radar, but also have really interesting and important information about the region’s cultural past,” Wholey said. 

Preservation Delaware hopes to craft model legislation to help localities deal with the problem—and lobby for funding to support climate adaptation for historic resources. 

“Our job too is to garner public support,” McGrath said. “Educating and mobilizing the public, because that’s how legislation gets done, right, is when citizens back it.”

 

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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