Flooding in the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina

Water, Water Everywhere
North Carolina Heritage at Risk

The current and impending changes to water and its systems will alter our future and our past, putting our shared cultural heritage at risk.

Author: Allyson Ropp, Historic Preservation Archaeology Specialist

Water is everywhere. It covers approximately 70% of the Earth’s surface and is necessary for creating and sustaining all life. It is even the focus of many national and international days this month – including World Water Day (March 22) and National Groundwater Awareness Week (March 5 – 11).

Water is important in regulating Earth’s climate. The ocean absorbs most of the sun’s radiation which heats its waters. Both precipitation and the ocean’s currents move this warm water around the globe, leveling regional temperatures. Water is also an integral part of regulating the amount of carbon dioxide (a gas that absorbs and radiates heat) in the atmosphere. Carbon is dissolvable in water and when it is released into the ocean, the water can absorb and store the carbon preventing it from radiating heat. When the ocean is no longer able to absorb carbon, global temperatures begin to rise, and the pH level decreases which is known as acidification. This can be harmful to marine life.

Water is also impacted by Earth’s climate, when global temperatures begin to rise, the properties of water change. When air temperature increases, so does the water temperature. This causes thermal expansion, meaning water is taking up more space and contributes to rising sea levels. Warmer temperatures melt bodies of ice, which adds freshwater to marine systems and dilutes salt levels, affecting marine life. At the same time, rising sea levels push salt water into freshwater systems, contaminating water supplies. The combination of warmer air and water drives more frequent and intense weather events and brings stronger and far-reaching storm surges on coastlines.

Timelapse depicting effects of projected sea level rise
Timelapse of projected sea level rise (0 ft – 10 ft) in North Carolina

When the properties of water change it also impacts archaeological sites and cultural heritage. Acidification, salinity shifts, and warmer waters speed up the degradation of shipwrecks and other submerged structures. Increased tropical storm intensity and frequency create more violent wave action. This exposes submerged sites to turbulent activity, which shifts sediment around sites, moves or flips sites on the seafloor, and can break off sections of shipwrecks.

Shoreline sites also face threats from sea level rise and increased wave activity. Encroaching water and increased movement erode shoreline sites eventually leading to complete submersion of these sites. During this process, portions of sites and individual artifacts can be dislodged and washed downstream, affecting our ability to interpret the site. Following submersion, these sites undergo a series of immediate changes that result in the breakdown of structural integrity.

Two sonar survey results of a the shipwreck Ella showing changes from storm damage
Ella, a Civil War blockade runner, wrecked off Bald Head Island near the mouth of the Cape Fear River in December 1864. The site was first recorded in 1963 and has been part of several follow-up investigations and monitoring surveys. Two monitoring surveys were conducted in 2012 and 2016. The image above shows a change in site exposure, with more structure exposed during the 2016 survey.

You might think sites further inland are safe, but as the ocean water rises in coastal areas the height of the water table inland also increases. This introduces buried sites to water contaminated with salt. Saltwater is detrimental and can chemically alter artifacts and structures. Increased storm activity also brings heavy rains to inland areas, flooding sites, and destabilizing standing structures that can lead to collapse.

Overall, the current and impending changes to water and its systems will alter our future and our past. Changes to climate will alter the environment and damage or destroy archaeological sites putting our shared cultural heritage at risk. Therefore, it is important to create plans to monitor our state’s at-risk heritage and find ways to protect it for the future.


This material was produced with assistance from the Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.

-Anderson DG, Bissett TG, Yerka SJ, Wells JJ, Kansa EC, Kansa SW, et al. 2017. Sea-level rise and archaeological site destruction: An example from the southeastern United States using DINAA (Digital Index of North American Archaeology).

-Cassar, JoAnn. 2016. Climate Change and Archaeological Sites: Adaptation Strategies. In Cultural Heritage from Pollution to Climate Change. Roger-Alexandre Lefѐvre and Cristina Sabbioni (eds.). Centro Universitario Europeo per i Beni Culturali: Ravello.

-Johnson, Adam, Lisa Marrack & Sara Dolan (2015) Threats to Coastal Archaeological Sites and the Effects of Future Climate Change: Impacts of the 2011 Tsunami and an Assessment of Future Sea-Level Rise at Hōnaunau, Hawai’i, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 10:2, 232-252.

-International Panel on Climate Change. 2021. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, In press.

-Wright, Jeneva. 2016. Maritime Archaeology and Climate Change: An Invitation. Journal of Maritime Archaeology 11(3):255-270.

-Main image: Flooding in the River Arts Distric of Asheville. Image by NC Historic Preservation Office
-Timelapse of projected sea level rise. Images from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
-2012 and 2016 surveys of shipwreck Ella. Images by NC Office of State Archaeology

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