New Research Provides Insights into Sea-Level Rise and Archaeological Site Destruction

Today, the open access journal PLOS ONE published “Sea-level rise and archaeological site destruction: An example from the southeastern United States using DINAA (Digital Index of North American Archaeology)” (Anderson et al. 2017), a peer-reviewed article that projects how climate change driven sea-level rise will endanger over 13,000 recorded archaeological sites on the eastern seaboard of the United States, including over 1,000 listed on the National Register of Historic Places as important cultural properties.

Potential archaeological site loss from sea-level rise, grouped by elevation in meters above present mean sea level. All recorded sites within a buffer of 200 km from the present coastline are shown.

This paper reports on the analysis of multiple data sets integrated by the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA), a collaborative project involving researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (Anderson, Bissett, and Yerka), Indiana University South Bend (Wells, Myers, and DeMuth), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (White), Open Context (E. Kansa and S. Kansa), and partners in many government agencies and tribal nations across the United States. DINAA aggregates data sets developed over decades from several state and federal government sources. These data sets document archaeological and historical sites protected by federal law. In bringing these data together DINAA, provides the public and research communities with a uniquely comprehensive window on several thousand years of human settlement in the North American continent.

Each archaeological site is like a book, providing a unique window into the struggles and achievements of people in the past. Viewed this way, projected sea-level rise in the coming decades will destroy entire libraries– thousands of sites that record millennia of human occupation in coastal settings. Secondary impacts, especially the relocation of million of people displaced from inundated coastal regions, will further threaten our archaeological heritage, even far from current shorelines. Without planning and redoubling of our efforts to study sites across entire regions, flooding and population movements will erase the history of cultures in large parts of eastern North America.

Analysis of DINAA data shows the surprising scale of climate impacts on North America’s historical and archaeological record. Such research is critical to making well-informed forecasts and public policy decisions about the consequences of rapid climate change, extreme weather events, and displaced populations. These are factors that will shape our civilization profoundly in the years to come. This research also highlights the value of open government data as a means to help broaden partnerships between government agencies and the researcher community. In making these data available, government agencies can stimulate new research and public understanding on how to better protect our nation’s rich historical heritage. This paper highlights the value of sharing scientific data to better inform public policy.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation as a collaborative project in 2012 (Awards 1217240 [UT] and 1216810 [IUSB]). In 2016, NSF funded a second collaborative project to expand the effort (Awards 1623621[UT] and 1623644 [IUSB]). Funding was also obtained in 2016 by the Alexandria Archive Institute (Open Context) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (LG-70-16-0056-16).

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