The seas are rising and federal lands along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are under siege.

A slew of studies predict the waters will rise at least one meter — 39 inches — by 2100. If so, national wildlife refuges, or large chunks of them, will disappear. Migratory and shore bird habitat will vanish. Prime hunting or bird-watching ground will shrink. The remaining refuge wetlands will become more brackish and less able to sustain the fish and birds that depend upon a healthy fresh-saltwater mix.

And, according to the scientific journal Plos One, more than 13,000 archaeological sites across the Southeast will disappear, Many of those historical, cultural and architectural treasures are found on refuges from North Carolina to Florida to Texas. Native American burial grounds. African-American slave quarters. Antebellum forts and lighthouses. Rice plantations. Sawmills.

Rick Kanaski says these five national wildlife refuges in the Southeast, and the archaeological treasures within their boundaries, are most at risk from rising seas:

  1. Seminole encampments, burial sites and Fort Dade, Egmont Key, Florida
  2. Pre-Columbian Aklis site, Sandy Point, U.S. Virgin Islands
  3. Elliott Plantation, Merritt Island, Florida
  4. Jehossee Island Plantation, Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin, South Carolina
  5. Pre-Columbian shell works, Ten Thousand Islands, Florida

There are other, little-known threats, too. As people, buildings and roads migrate inland, vacant land — culturally or archaeologically significant perhaps — will be covered up without us knowing the history below.

"A lot of those landscapes are critical not only from a scientific and resource perspective, but also for maintaining cultural identity," said Rick Kanaski, the regional archeologist in the Southeast for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It’s not just the professional researchers who care. We’ll lose access to a whole range of sites that are important to local communities and Native American tribes too."

Kanaski’s office is an old maintenance shed at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Dust-covered tomes, scientific studies, soil surveys, plantation histories, dog-eared maps, black-and-white photos and other archaeological and cultural artifacts fill bookshelves, desks and choice locations on the floor. The old rice plantations outside his office, and across S.C. 170, offer proof of the ocean’s relentless surge over the refuge.

alligator on river The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is home to a variety of wildlife that's vulnerable to rising waters. (Photo: Dan Chapman/USFWS)

"We're already seeing the impact of climate change and sea level rise," Kanaski said during a slow drive along the levees that keep the water impoundments in check. "We’re seeing a shift in the vegetative cover, particularly as salt water comes up the Savannah River."

Refuge staff manipulate water levels via 32 dikes and weirs across 3,000 acres of prime freshwater habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds. They also raise the height of levees and dikes to keep salt water coming up the Savannah River from inundating the impoundments. Sea level rise is exacerbated by the deepening of the river to allow super-sized cargo ships to dock at the Port of Savannah.

Kanaski has recorded more than three dozen historic or prehistoric archaeological sites across the plantation system. Virtually every hammock has a story to tell. Some housed rice mills and barns or slave quarters and cemeteries.

Kanaski drives past a hammock shrouded in oaks, wax myrtles and Chinese parasol trees. A large, brick cistern sits mid-island. Rainwater was captured by gutters on long-lost slave quarters and fed into the cistern.

Fish and Wildlife hasn’t done a detailed study on potential damage and loss from sea level rise. The National Park Service has. A 2015 report entitled "Adapting To Climate Change in Coastal Parks" predicts that a one-meter sea level rise will translate into the destruction of, or damage to, 10,000 structures at 40 low-lying parks nationwide. Estimated value of lost forts, lighthouses, visitors’ centers, roads and trails: $40 billion.

People, too, will be impacted by rising seas. Plos One says three million people in the Southeast live in areas at or below one meter (above mean sea level) and, therefore, will have to move.

"As coastal terrain is flooded, increased development is likely in the regions behind the coastline, so the area of effect will extend away from the coast," the journal reports.

And then what?

"It’s like the dominos falling," Kanaski said. "People have to have a place to live. They’ll cause a lot more damage to the coast. And you’ll end up losing precious habitat and cultural resources."

This story was originally written for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is republished with permission here.

Dan Chapman is a public affairs specialist with the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

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