No matter which camp you side with in the ‘Climate Change’ discussion, its effects cannot be denied.period. Polar vortexes, massive flooding, snow in deserts, excessive drought, etc… we’ve all been privy to it the last few years no matter where we are in this world, in the extreme, and whether it happens sooner or later, these changes will continue unchecked. However, without getting into said debate, this blog & episode is about how climate change is not just affecting our atmospheres, oceans, and seas, but as a byproduct- our submerged heritage as well. If you’re a maritime archaeologist, a scuba diver, someone fascinated by shipwrecks or just someone interested in the past- this means you should be concerned for all of the knowledge that could potentially be lost because of climate change affecting the preservation and ability to document submerged sites.
The problem with underwater heritage is that it is by definition, underwater, meaning that many times these sites are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for even those already concerned with cultural heritage protection. Because of a desperate need for awareness and additional protection even within our own sector, UNESCO had to expand upon the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property by creating a completely separate (and needed) Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage in 2001. Heritage managers are already fighting great odds to protect submerged sites, and now climate change is complicating that fight even more because the answers aren’t clear and the solutions may not even be feasible.
As Katie (The Digger) asks in this episode, how can things like rising sea levels make a difference for a site that is already underwater? Well rising sea levels create two problems- 1. sites that are not yet submerged, but may soon be. Even with the right protection, many of these sites are location specific and whole settlements that cannot be moved – Jamestown V.A.- the site of the first English settlement in America or the Statue of Liberty in NYC, amongst others, are predicted to be underwater within another 100 years! What can be done to prevent this? If people would cut their carbon emissions, it could slow down the rate of these predictions of sea level and temperature rises. 2. For sites already underwater, as discussed in the episode (all other environmental factors aside), a rise in water level on sites significantly reduces the amount of time that divers/maritime archaeologists can spend on the site. This might not seem like as big of a deal, but when you take into consideration how costly an underwater archaeological excavation already is, then if the time spent on a site continues to reduce, a full study could take years longer. English Heritage archaeologist Mark Dunkley describes “the effect of sea level rise on archaeological diving projects will be to incrementally reduce the amount of time (and therefore productivity) an air-breathing diver can spend underwater safely. For example, a 20% increase in diving depth can result in a 32% decrease in dive time.” Not to forget that the deeper a site gets, the more expensive high tech equipment will be needed for proper documentation.