The following case study is part of a forthcoming NPS handbook on climate change entitled “Climate Change and Cultural Resources: Impact Assessments and Case Studies.”  The original author is Caitlin Smith.


Assateague Island National Seashore, NPCA photo

Assateague Island National Seashore represents one of the most vul­nerable sites for cultural resources on the Atlantic Coast. As a barrier island measuring only 46 feet above sea level at its highest point (NPCA 2007), climate change is likely to have significant im­pact on the island’s cultural landscape, historic structures, and archeological re­sources due to rising sea levels and more violent storm events.

Assateague Island is a richly layered landscape, reflecting its inherently dynamic geomorphology. Because the natural landscape is constantly in flux, so too is the cultural landscape of the island. Dynamic forces such as wind, ocean currents, and weather constantly reshape the shoreline, altering the location, condition, accessibil­ity, and interpretation of cultural resources. Much of the current land appears to have been formed after 1700, which is largely the reason that there is little evidence of human occupation on the Island prior to European contact (Langley 2002).

uncovered shipwreck

Remains of uncovered shipwreck, NPS photo

Allowing natural processes to act freely upon the island’s landscapes is an important part of the park’s management philosophy. Accordingly, park staff do not attempt to maintain static cultural landscapes. But these dynamic forces quickly batter his­toric structures and archeological remains, making these cultural resources increas­ingly vulnerable to damage under climate change conditions such as intensified wind, rain, salt spray, erosion, and sea level rise. Sea level is estimated to increase by two to five times the current level in the next century – rates which may overwhelm the island’s capacity to adjust, and destroy its fragile cultural landscape (Climate Change Response Program 2011).



Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station, NPS photo

The historic 1922 Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station, which includes the sta­tion house, garage, lookout tower, generator house, boathouse, system of wooden walkways and wharf, is at risk to continual and increasing erosion, decay, and sub­mersion. Archeological sites at risk include Green Run Cemetery, the ruins of the Scott’s Ocean House Hotel, Seaboard Fish Oil and Guano Company, North Beach Life-Saving Station, and the submerged remains of 8 shipwrecks. Artifacts from two 18th and 19th century Spanish vessels have also been recovered on the coast, and are continually turned up as the island moves and reforms itself (NPCA 2007).



Wild Ponies, NPS photo

Climate change will also alter the ap­pearance and experience of the cultural landscape. Changes to characteristic vegeta­tion, wildlife (including the culturally significant wild ponies), and recreational areas will alter the context for cultural meaning and significance of the island. Sensitive habitats, such as salt marshes, may disappear completely and rising sea level may devastate Assateague’s population of feral ponies that symbolize the wild and time­less beauty of the Island’s cultural landscape (Langley 2002; NPCA 2007).

Sources Cited:
1.  Climate Change Response Program, Scenario Planning: Assateague Island National Seashore, March 2011, p. 1-2.
2.  Langley, Susan B.M. “Archeological Overview & Assessment of Maritime Resources in Assateague Is­land National Seashore, Worcester County, MD and Accomack County, VA” May 31, 2002 p. 1-186
3.  National Parks Conservation Association State of the Parks: Assateague Island National Seashore- A Resource Assessment, August 2007 p. 1-40