The following case study is part of a forthcoming NPS handbook on climate change entitled “Climate Change and Cultural Resources: Impact Assessments and Case Studies.” The original author is Caitlin Smith.Assateague Island National Seashore represents one of the most vulnerable sites for cultural resources on the Atlantic Coast. As a barrier island measuring only 46 feet above sea level at its highest point (NPCA 2007), climate change is likely to have significant impact on the island’s cultural landscape, historic structures, and archeological resources due to rising sea levels and more violent storm events.
Assateague Island is a richly layered landscape, reflecting its inherently dynamic geomorphology. Because the natural landscape is constantly in flux, so too is the cultural landscape of the island. Dynamic forces such as wind, ocean currents, and weather constantly reshape the shoreline, altering the location, condition, accessibility, and interpretation of cultural resources. Much of the current land appears to have been formed after 1700, which is largely the reason that there is little evidence of human occupation on the Island prior to European contact (Langley 2002).
Allowing natural processes to act freely upon the island’s landscapes is an important part of the park’s management philosophy. Accordingly, park staff do not attempt to maintain static cultural landscapes. But these dynamic forces quickly batter historic structures and archeological remains, making these cultural resources increasingly vulnerable to damage under climate change conditions such as intensified wind, rain, salt spray, erosion, and sea level rise. Sea level is estimated to increase by two to five times the current level in the next century – rates which may overwhelm the island’s capacity to adjust, and destroy its fragile cultural landscape (Climate Change Response Program 2011).
The historic 1922 Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station, which includes the station house, garage, lookout tower, generator house, boathouse, system of wooden walkways and wharf, is at risk to continual and increasing erosion, decay, and submersion. Archeological sites at risk include Green Run Cemetery, the ruins of the Scott’s Ocean House Hotel, Seaboard Fish Oil and Guano Company, North Beach Life-Saving Station, and the submerged remains of 8 shipwrecks. Artifacts from two 18th and 19th century Spanish vessels have also been recovered on the coast, and are continually turned up as the island moves and reforms itself (NPCA 2007).
Climate change will also alter the appearance and experience of the cultural landscape. Changes to characteristic vegetation, wildlife (including the culturally significant wild ponies), and recreational areas will alter the context for cultural meaning and significance of the island. Sensitive habitats, such as salt marshes, may disappear completely and rising sea level may devastate Assateague’s population of feral ponies that symbolize the wild and timeless beauty of the Island’s cultural landscape (Langley 2002; NPCA 2007).
1. Climate Change Response Program, Scenario Planning: Assateague Island National Seashore, March 2011, p. 1-2.
2. Langley, Susan B.M. “Archeological Overview & Assessment of Maritime Resources in Assateague Island National Seashore, Worcester County, MD and Accomack County, VA” May 31, 2002 p. 1-186
3. National Parks Conservation Association State of the Parks: Assateague Island National Seashore- A Resource Assessment, August 2007 p. 1-40