When Trish Kicklighter took over as superintendent for Assateague Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 2009, she noticed some differences in how things ran on the 37-mile barrier island compared to her old post in Shenandoah National Park.

For one, the park employed a coastal geologist. That geologist was one of the people who told Kicklighter that not only was the sea around Assateague Island rising, but the island itself was sinking. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Maryland estimated there was a 60 percent chance that the island would reach a tipping point and start breaking up into smaller islands.

"I doubted it would happen during my time there, but it was an opportunity for me to set the stage for future managers," Kicklighter said.

A few months before Kicklighter left the island for another post in West Virginia, it did happen. Superstorm Sandy swept over the northeastern United States in 2011, striking Assateague Island a glancing blow that ripped into boardwalks, parking lots and the historic Coast Guard station boathouse.

Kicklighter, now superintendent of New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, knew something had to be done. The park already had advanced monitoring equipment tracking sea-level rise and subsidence on the island, but over her four years at on the island, she helped draw up a general management plan for Assateague to help guide its transition to a new, watery reality.

Save our lighthouse?
Assateague Island is not alone. National parks, historic sites, small communities and even NASA launching pads are under imminent threat from climate change.

report released yesterday by the Union of Concerned Scientists detailed almost two dozen sites of historical, cultural and operational importance in the United States in immediate danger from varying climate threats.

Sea-level rise and superstorms powered by warmer waters threaten iconic, low-lying landmarks where millions of immigrants took their first steps on American soil, like Ellis Island in New York Harbor, Historic Jamestowne—the first permanent English colony in North America—and Fort Monroe, a concrete fortress in southern Virginia where Dutch traders brought the first African slaves to the continent.

Farther west, drought and wildfires threaten ancient cliff dwellings in southern Colorado that predate European arrival by 700 years, and the California breadbasket—or America's "salad bowl"—where César Chávez began organizing the country's migrant farmworkers.

As these varying climate threats close in on landscapes and monuments that Americans and tourists have enjoyed for years, park managers, local officials and communities are starting to choose where they will make their stand.

In some areas, like Assateague Island, those decisions are already being made. The new ranger station on the island was built on piers and came in pieces, so it can be moved to another area of the island if the ocean migrates too close. The management plan Kicklighter helped create for the island is aiming to gradually remove all permanent infrastructure from the island, turning it into a day-use area.

"It's something we wrestled with at the very beginning when doing the general management plan. How do you deal with a resource if you don't know what it will look like for the next 50 years? And what do you do if the entire reason the national seashore was created may be going away?" Kicklighter said.

"We decided we just have to embrace it."

In 1999, Cape Hatteras National Seashore took a slightly different approach. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse was built in 1870 a comfortable 1,500 feet from the ocean. By 1970, the ocean was 120 feet away. After decades of scientific assessment and debate, public support had shifted toward relocating the lighthouse, and the NPS began planning. On June 17, 1999, hydraulic jacks lifted the lighthouse 6 feet into the air and onto steel mats. Over the course of three weeks, the lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet away from the shoreline to where it stands today.

On its website, the NPS says the move enabled the agency to meet "its obligation to both historic preservation and coastal protection."

At a briefing yesterday to launch the UCS report, Jeffrey Altschul, president of the Society for American Archaeology, indirectly but vividly questioned this approach.

"In the United States, we fight the destruction of historic and cultural properties one at a time," Altschul said. "Unless we change course, we will fight the effects of climate change the same. ... It will be politically attractive to take a 'save our lighthouse' approach, since each action is limited in scope and the resources needed are manageable."

Over time, Altschul said, that strategy will become prohibitively expensive. He added, "It's time to engage in a different conversation. What do we want to save? What sites embody the core cultural values that will diminish us as a nation if we lose them? And what are we willing to let go?"

'We are going to stay in place'
So how should America—or really, Americans—determine what gets saved? In the words of Alan Spears, director of cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association, who also spoke at yesterday's briefing, who gets in the lifeboat?

Should it be based on cultural importance? On tourist revenue dollars the landmarks create for the local communities? On the cost and scale of the engineering project that would be required to relocate something?

One can imagine the conflicts the debate could incite. Take Fort Monroe near Hampton, Va., the port of entry for America's first African slaves that turned into a haven for escaped slaves fleeing the South to sign up and fight for the Union army. Fort Monroe's cultural importance can't be questioned, but how would you move a seven-sided stone fort?

The local government in Annapolis, Md., has decided to not move anything. The historic City Dock area is 2 to 4½ feet above sea level, and the level of the Chesapeake Bay could rise by 1 to 2½ feet by 2050, according to the UCS report. The city has experienced small-scale "nuisance flooding" three times in the last two weeks.

Following guidelines laid out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in its Cultural Resource Hazard Mitigation Plan, Annapolis is surveying all 140 at-risk buildings in the city, exploring ways to limit floodwater damage and keep buildings intact.

"The cost of doing something can be very small for an individual property," said Lisa Craig, chief of the Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission, who spoke at the UCS briefing.

Unlike Cape Hatteras, historic buildings in Annapolis—which are mostly privately owned—will likely change as they are modified to withstand periodic flooding and increasingly common extreme storms. Historic Annapolis is the "economic engine" for the city, Craig said, and the town could not afford to lose or relocate it.

"In many communities, you abandon, you protect or you relocate," Craig said. "We don't really have that chance. We are going to stay in place and protect what we have."

Precedents home and abroad
Annapolis is leaning heavily on FEMA's hazard mitigation plan, a document Craig swore by while adding, "We're very proud to be one of the first ones, apparently, to be really using this document from front to back."

Indeed, Annapolis appears to be one of the few cities embracing federal guidance on how to adapt to the threats of climate change, and Craig said she hopes the city's approach will become a model for historic seaport and coastal communities around the country "who want to know how you do it yourself as a local community."

Jeffrey Altschul, from the Society for American Archaeology, added that a national-scale preservation and relocation program is not entirely unprecedented. Historic Scotland—the country's historic preservation agency—has developed a robust "scheduling" process that now includes 8,000 of the country's 260,000 recognized historic sites and monuments. The process includes extensive opportunities for local consultation and covers monuments in need of anything from small repairs to demolition or destruction.

In the United States, a similar central process may be necessary. At the least, most experts are stressing the need for increased communication and collaboration among federal, state and local agencies, as well as local communities and stakeholders.

"We need to make adaptation and preparedness a national priority," said Adam Markham, director of climate impacts for the UCS.

After Superstorm Sandy swept through Assateague Island, Kicklighter said, staff were on the right path with their planning and they were "several steps ahead" of other parks in preparing for the impacts of climate change. The island was hard hit, but it could have been worse.

"Assateague could be a winning model in dealing with this," she said.

Kicklighter said she expects the island to transition to becoming a day-use site with primitive camp sites and "great swimming" but not necessarily with the hardened infrastructure its traditionally enjoyed. As it turns out, Assateague could also be a valuable model for saying goodbye.

"Will there always be bridge [to the mainland]?" Kicklighter asked. "There may always be a bridge, but there may not be an island to drive to."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500