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Climate change puts history at risk

The effects of climate change are being felt in Florida. In Miami, storm drains that were built to drain rain water off of roads and away from houses out into the ocean now need to remain closed during high tides to keep the ocean from coming in. The city of Hallandale Beach has been forced to abandon six of its eight drinking water wells due to the intrusion of saltwater from the sea into the once freshwater aquifers.

Fort Dade, on the west side of the Egmont Key, being drowned by the rising sea. (Courtesy photo)

While many places around the world will be affected by sea level rise and climate change, Florida is at particular risk. Due to its low elevation, a few inches of sea level rise has the potential to drown large areas of land. Its subtropical latitude and peninsular shape make it a prime target for hurricanes and tropical storms which scientists predict will increase in number and severity because of warmer air and water temperatures.

Another less known reason why Florida is so vulnerable is right underneath our feet. Millions of years ago Florida was a tropical reef much like those found offshore today. What once was reef now is the porous limestone that makes up our bedrock. This poses yet another challenge to our state when it comes to managing sea level rise. Where cities like New Orleans use pumps and levees to keep back the ocean, simply constructing sea walls will not prevent the water from coming up through the holes in the limestone.

While political figures in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. continue to deny the scientific research and physical proof of the potentially devastating impacts to our state, local governments have no choice but to take action. Miami is using massive pumps to remove tide water and has started raising its streets. Hallandale Beach is now purchasing water from municipalities that are further inland. While these solutions may work for now for our city streets and buildings, what about our historic sites, structures, and landscapes? One such site has been the subject of recent study by the Tribal Historic Preservation Office. The island of Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay is known for its historic lighthouse, secluded beaches, and the ruins of the Spanish-American Naval Base, Fort Dade;

GIS image illustrates the erosion of Egmont Key which is being accelerated by climate change and sea level rise. (Courtesy photo)

but it also hides a dark history. Near the end of the Seminole Wars the Island became a prison for hundreds of captured Seminoles awaiting transport to Oklahoma. Now the small island’s history is at risk as the changing environment and climate slowly erode it away. Egmont Key has lost much of its mass since the Seminole were imprisoned there and with the ruins of Fort Dade extending out into the Gulf of Mexico, its history is at risk of washing away with the tides.

In Florida, 16,015 cultural sites would be inundated by a 3-foot rise in sea level, but archaeological and cultural resources are often neglected when discussing resiliency planning. To address these concerns the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum have partnered with the Florida Public Archeology Network, Florida Atlantic University, the National Park Service, the University of West Florida, the Florida Division of Historical Resources, and the Florida International University Global Indigenous Forum, to organize the 2017 Tidally United Summit. The Summit is dedicated to raising awareness about how climate change will impact archaeological and culturally important sites, as well as how the loss of these sites will affect communities. The summit will provide a venue for that discussion and highlight indigenous groups by inviting speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds who will speak on topics like climate science, planning, and the importance of cultural heritage. The summit will also present case studies from FPAN’s Heritage Monitoring Scouts (HMS Florida) program, a public engagement program to observe archaeological sites at risk, especially those impacted by coastal erosion and sea level rise.

The conference will be held Aug. 4-5. The first day will take place at the Native Learning Center in Hollywood and consist of speakers and poster presentations. The second day will include two field trips. The first trip will be to an archeological site in Everglades National Park that is being affected by climate change and the second will be a tour of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office are excited to facilitate this event and would like to welcome Tribal members to attend and join us in the dialog. For more information, or to register to attend, visit: or contact Sara Ayers-Rigsby at or 954- 254-9657.


This article was written by Misty Snyder, collections assistant at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, and Dave Scheidecker, archaeologist at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office.  

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