What will happen to history as climate change batters the New England coast?

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Rising sea levels and powerful nor’easters have battered the New England coast in recent years and many oceanfront communities have taken a real beating.

A recent study from the University of New Hampshire found another consequence of this aspect of climate change: many historic sites along the coast are threatened by rising sea water and rising groundwater.

Meghan Howey, chair of the UNH Archeology Department, was surprised when she was surveying sites along the Great Bay Estuary in Durham and found bricks from a chimney in the water. She was able to conclude that a pre-colonial home had fallen into the bay as rising waters ate away at the coastline.

"We’ve lost, in 10 years, about 25 feet of shoreline here," Howey explained.

She said this trend is threatening many sites that were once safely inland.

"This area was born from the water in, not the land out. So, now that the water is rising, that’s trouble," said Howey.

She says up to 14 percent of New Hampshire’s cultural heritage is threatened by sea level rise.

That includes a dozen sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The threat is not what I typically would think of, like development. It’s more subtle and a more pervasive threat. And it’s really shocking and sad," Howey said.

Rising tides and rising groundwater are threatening historic treasures like Strawbery Banke Museum, a 10-acre compound in Portsmouth that celebrates the colonial era.

Timelapse video shot during an astronomically high tide in December tells the story, chronicling salt water bubbling up from the cellar floor of a home built in 1795.

Rodney Rowland, the director of facilities and special projects at Strawbery Banke, said, "This is actually salt water coming in from the Piscataqua River and salt water is much more damaging and accelerates the decay of our buildings.”

Another historic home at Strawbery Banke was recently reinforced with four inches of concrete and a new pumping system.

Still, pressure from last winter’s nor’easters actually cracked the new floor.

Rowland said these types of remedies are expensive and are also causing some soul searching for historians. "It’s got to be balanced with our preservation goals to a certain degree, but it may be that we need to rethink some of those preservation guidelines in order to come to a solution that will actually work."

The stakes are high and will determine whether future generations can learn history by experiencing it.

"This is everywhere,” said Howey. “It’s not just New England. I think of Faneuil Hall. I think of Boston, it’s just sitting there, all that history is just on the water.”

Another concern is the tourism industry as many of these historic locations along the New England coast draw visitors from all over the world.

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