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Jamestown, North America's first permanent English settlement, endangered by climate change

Facing the threat of sea-level rise, Jamestown made the list of 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

JAMESTOWN, Va. — As the first permanent English settlement in North America, Jamestown, Virginia, has a long history of hardship.

Following its establishment in 1607, early colonists at Jamestown dealt with disease, famine and poor weather conditions. Ultimately, the settlement along the James River survived, laying the foundation for what became the United States of America.

But over 400 years later, the settlement faces a bigger challenge: it could be lost forever.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation included Jamestown on its 2022 list of America's 11 most endangered historic places, due to the effects of climate change.

The list cited sea-level rise, storms and recurrent flooding as the biggest threats to the original site, which is now an archaeological site and popular tourist destination. The National Trust has released the list every year since 1988 to raise awareness about the threats facing the nation's historical sites.

According to the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, archaeologists have discovered evidence of the original fort and buildings, and over three million artifacts that give insights into the lives of indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans and Europeans at Jamestown. 

This climate crisis threatens what's left to be discovered.

Michael Lavin, the director of collections and conservation at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, said the landscape has changed since the mid-1990s when the archaeological project began. 

It's a race against time. There are around 60 acres in Jamestown and James City County of untold stories, according to David Givens, the director of archaeology at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.

With the elevation ranging from two feet to around 15 feet above sea level, important artifacts such as graves, wells, ditches and cellars are endangered by erosion damage from the rising water table.

"[What's] in imminent danger is that it's our shared history in the Commonwealth and for our nation," Givens said.

Credit: Photo: Anna Shackelford of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia)
Flooding at Jamestown after a Nor'easter, 10/29/2021

Land subsidence: As the sea level rises, the land is slowly sinking

What we're seeing at Jamestown is part of the bigger problem the Hampton Roads region of Virginia faces as the climate crisis gets worse.

Erin Reilly, the senior staff scientist at the James River Association, described parts of Hampton Roads as hotspots for sea-level rise, largely due to land subsidence.

Land subsidence is when the Earth's surface settles or sinks because of the removal or displacement of materials under the surface. In this case, the issue is caused by groundwater withdrawals from the Potomac Aquifer.

While the sinking of the land is millimeters a year, you have to factor in the rate of sea-level rise, which exasperates the problem.

Reilly explained that a tide gauge in Norfolk has measured a foot and a half of sea-level rise in the last 100 years, one of the longest-running tidal records. In the next 30 years, the sea level is predicted to rise another foot and a half.

Because of this, Hampton Roads is more vulnerable to flooding and high tides, something that will get worse over the next few decades.

According to Lavin and Givens, intense rainstorms, aging infrastructure and the frequency of coastal storms are also negatively affecting Jamestown. These are good examples of various factors contributing to the climate crisis that people don't immediately think about.

The NOAA's Sea Level Rise Viewer is below. Drag the slider on the left side to see how sea-level rise will affect Jamestown Island.

How Jamestown can be saved

Reilly said the biggest solution for the region is to address climate change itself.

"Even if we address climate change, it's still going to take time for sea-level rise to stop rising at the rate that it is currently rising," Reilly said. "But if we're trying to fight back at the same time that it's rising, there's not a whole lot we can do. It's fighting a losing battle."

Reilly said there are some options on the table to adapt:

Credit: Photo: Michael Lavin of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia)
The seawall protects the archaeological remains of James Fort and the rest of Preservation Virginia's property from erosion by the James River.

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation is also taking on the challenge. The organization is launching the Save Jamestown initiative, a call to action to protect this piece of American history.

Lavin said the foundation has put together conceptual designs on things that would protect the property for at least the next 50 years. This would buy time for the foundation to conduct a full study on more drastic solutions, but addressing the crisis has a price tag.

"We don't know exactly how much it is going to cost, but it is more than a small non-profit, that we are, can easily afford," Lavin said. "We would probably be looking for local government, state and federal appropriations to mitigate what we're dealing with."

Lavin encouraged people to get involved by visiting Jamestown and seeing how archaeology has uncovered American history. You can also learn more and make a donation on the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation's website.