Swept Away

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Last year, I started a research project for the National Park Service. They were concerned about how archaeological sites at Point Reyes National Seashore were going to be affected by climate change. I didn't know much about modern climate change when I started. I knew more about climate shifts some 5,000 years ago than what's happening now, today, during my own time. I hadn't seen any of the documentaries, and I don't get cable news. I accepted that climate change was happening, the science looked reasonable, but I also understood that there was public debate.

I poured through the field studies. I read about rising sea levels world-wide, of a doubling of the melting rate of Greenland ice, of ocean acidification, of massive forest die-offs, of 765 separate data sets showing evidence of human-caused climate change in the physical systems of the planet's surface. After two months of background research, I had to step away for a bit. The evidence was so clearly laid out, consistent and grim.

Setting aside the problems climate change will cause our lives, from an archaeological standpoint, this is a major disaster. Rising sea levels will destroy the coastal archaeological sites of the world. The launching points of our collective adventures over the past 6,000 years, whether it is the Polynesians crossing the open Pacific, the Greeks sailing the Mediterranean or the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, these will all be gone. Here in California, thousands of archaeological sites will be wiped out along our coastline over the next century.

To prepare for this, dozens of archaeologists state-wide have volunteered to survey public lands for sites along the California coast, starting with Marin County. Everyone should be nervous when a group of people who make a living off of studying the past drop what they are doing to prepare for the future. The arguments that researchers are making up climate change in the hopes of getting grant money are false: we, as scientists and citizens, are volunteering because we understand what we're about to lose.

With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.