Rising waters, erosion, hurricanes and nor’easters for years have affected Jamestown Island, which played host Thursday to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell as she learned about climate threats across the nation.
The English settlers who first set foot on Jamestown Island in 1607 were standing on a different piece of land than what is seen today. While no maps were drawn of the area until the 1800s, scientists and archaeologists have been able to speculate where the banks of the island may have been.
Over the past 140 years, the eastern tip of the island at Black Point has lost 200 feet. Scientists have been projecting for years the island may be entirely under water by the end of this century.
“It’s very evident here, in one of the most significant hot spots in the country, where we are seeing the effects of sea level rise,” Jewell said.
Jewell was on hand Thursday for a tour and roundtable discussion about climate change across the country. Her stop in Jamestown was part of an effort to promote the Clean Power Plan proposal, which the U.S. Environmental Protection agency released Monday under President Barack Obama’s direction.
The EPA proposal follows steps laid out in Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which relies on data released in May in the third U.S. National Climate Assessment.
Part of the assessment focuses on projected sea level rise — due to emissions and temperature and storm increases — which is estimated to increase 1 to 4 feet by 2100 in a worst-case scenario. The report suggests decision makers use a wider range – 8 inches to more than 6.5 feet — for planning.
The report shows the coast of Virginia as being vulnerable to sea level rise. Additionally, the Union of Concerned Scientists last month released a report on the 30 most threatened resources in the nation; in Virginia, Jamestown, Fort Monroe and Wallops Flight Facility made the list.
In the danger zone is Jamestown Island, most of which is less than 5 feet above sea level, according to the National Park Service.
The Clean Power Plan calls for a 30 percent reduction from the 2005 levels of carbon emissions in the nation’s power sector.
“Beyond benefiting public health and the economy, these cuts in carbon pollution will greatly benefit the parks, refuges, other public lands and cultural resources entrusted to the Department of the Interior on behalf of all Americans,” said Jewell in a news release. “Through sound science and collaboration, we need to examine how we can help cultural and natural resources like those on Jamestown Island and in the larger Chesapeake Bay region adapt to climate change and become more resilient to its impacts.”
Thursday’s roundtable called together experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, the National Park Service, the Union of Concerned Scientists, U.S. Geological Survey, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission and Virginia Beach Public Works, among others, to discuss threatened areas and how to move forward while protecting natural, cultural and archaeological resources.
“We need your expertise. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Jewell said to the panelists. “I’m here mainly to listen; I’m not here mainly to talk.”
Participants in the 13-member roundtable took turns explaining their work, obstacles and needs. Many of the experts said providing public education and working without comprehensive data were two of the biggest obstacles; a need for funding was also a common thread.
“I know it would be pretty nice to run to the federal piggy bank … but I’ve noticed there’s not a lot in the federal piggy bank,” Jewell said. “When it comes to day-to-day funding for intervention, it’s hard to make a case for.”
In situations where communities are ravaged by devastation-causing storms, as in New Orleans, Congress cuts a check, Jewell said.
Virginia Beach has been facing issues with inland flooding, which residents do not understand, said Mike Mundy, who was representing the City of Virginia Beach’s public works department. Getting 3 to 5 inches of rain in a 24-hour period causes problems for the city.
While there is no question the city needs funding, Mundy said educating people about the causes of flooding and how to be prepared would be helpful. With that, he said helping citizens find money to make proactive home improvements, such as lifting houses, would be beneficial.
Locally, Jamestown is suffering similar issues.
“I sit here worried,” said Colonial National Historical Park Superintendent Dan Smith. “I came here the year after [Hurricane] Isabel. I saw the effects. … I’m a land manager telling you this is going on.”
Some of the largest issues Smith has had to deal with because of storm damage and erosion are along the parkway. Hurricane Irene in 2011 caused damage on the isthmus bridge from Powhatan Creek to Jamestown Island and on the College Creek and Mill Creek bridges. Erosion along the parkway in Yorktown has resulted in a multi-year, approximately $15 million project to stabilize the shoreline. On Jamestown Island’s eastern end, Black Point is continuing to erode.
“It’s changing all the time now,” Smith said.
There is much collaboration between the park service and Preservation Virginia, which owns 22.5 acres of the island where the original James Fort was located, Smith said. Preservation Virginia representatives did not have a seat at the roundtable Thursday.
That James Fort portion of the island is about 11 feet above sea level, so it is higher than the areas most threatened by sea level rise. Despite its elevation, Hurricane Isabel caused the water to rise to 9 feet, which did pose a threat to the area, Smith said.
The encroaching saltwater causes scientists and archaeologists bigger problems when excavating and conserving artifacts, Jewell said. “Some of the artifacts won’t be recovered the way they could have been.”
Despite that, work has to be triaged. Depending on the importance of a site, the artifacts there are triaged based on what is hopeless and what is worth investing resources, Jewell said.