A Deep Dive into History: Viewing heritage through the lens of climate change

A familiar threat and a global catastrophe, climate change has had adverse effects on every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Most can list the primary repercussions of climate change, but few recognise the impact it has on human-made and naturally occurring heritage sites. Heritage sites have “Outstanding Universal Value,” as they have immense cultural significance and are often extremely important to the international community. It is imperative for historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and all members of the community, in the face of climate change, to find ways to conserve these sites, which are incredibly culturally rich, for future generations who deserve to know about their histories.

Nicole Grinnan works for the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN), a program within the University of West Florida as a research associate and public archaeologist. She is also about to undertake 11 months of fieldwork as a part of her PhD, under the supervision of Prof. Tom Dawson from the School of History, and Dr Katie Eagleton, Director of Libraries and Museums. Nicole’s main focus lies in outreach and education related to local history and archaeology. On a daily basis, she works with communities to make their voices heard, and to understand what matters most to them in terms of their heritage and environment.

In 2016, FPAN initiated a citizen science program called Heritage Monitoring Scouts (HMS), a public engagement program that tracks the impact of climate change on archaeological sites through soil erosion and rise in sea level. To further develop this project, the team at FPAN reached out to Professor Dawson to understand the methods of his pioneering work in Scotland wherein he observes the effects of climate change on coastal community heritage through citizen science. Anyone interested in surveying heritage sites can join the HMS initiative. Those who join are trained to monitor changes in these sites, for example, examining the aftereffects of a storm surge or flooding in coastal areas. Scouts document these changes which are then recorded and analysed to predict which sites are most at risk of loss. This initiative is underway across Florida, and the scouts comprise individuals of varying ages from young children to the elderly.

Pre-contact Native American mound site along Pensacola Bay, Florida.

Florida is a region rich in archaeological wealth. Scouts survey shell mounds built by the Native Americans, Spanish missions, fortifications from the American Civil War and sites that can be traced to the colonial period, taking note of British and French architectural influences. Developments in technology have also allowed the team to scan the sites with Terrestrial Laser Scanners (TLS). Researchers can then periodically compare those scans to note, over time, where material moves away from the site or if new materials move towards it. This allows them to identify which sites should be prioritised when studied, first and foremost surveying those sites most susceptible to climate change.

3D model of an eroding pre-contact Native American mound site (est. 2000 years old) along Pensacola Bay, Florida. (Credit: Jeffery Robinson)
Heat map of the eroding pre-contact Native American mound along Pensacola Bay, Florida. The warm colours (i.e., red, orange, yellow) indicate areas where there has been significant sand/sediment erosion; the cool colours (i.e., green and blue) indicate areas where sand/sediment has accreted. The map indicates that significant erosion around the top is evident.

Nicole is being funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to carry out her PhD research in Apalachicola, Florida, a small town that has a large fishing community, with a formerly thriving oyster industry and a history of lumber export. The history of Apalachicola goes back at least 12,000 years, and there is enthusiasm among local people to know more about the region’s past. Nicole also expresses gratitude to her research partner, the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. Nicole wanted to undertake her research on a small scale to refine her methodology, and NOAA wanted to know more about Apalachicola’s local history; in Nicole’s opinion, working together was an ideal outcome.

This project is not only essential to conserve and record Florida’s history to ensure that future generations will be made aware of their past, but it is also an unbiased retelling of history that is inclusive and diverse. More often than not, those who have had the chance to write the histories of the world have been privileged – economically, racially and by virtue of their sex. By engaging communities and understanding what perspectives of history interest them, Nicole and FPAN are able to give these histories the acknowledgment they deserve.

Nicole Grinnan and UWF graduate student Jeffery Robinson using FPAN’s FARO terrestrial laser scanner to conduct 3D scans of coastal sites along Santa Rosa Sound, Florida.