The Statue of Liberty’s torch-bearing arm—long seen as a welcoming sight to the millions of immigrants seeking refuge in the United States between 1886 and 1924—may soon be viewed as a distress signal as rising sea levels threaten to inundate the island.
And Lady Liberty is not alone in her distress. According to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, climate change is putting a number of cherished U.S. landmarks at risk. Take, for example, the recently established Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which is located on 25,000 acres of Maryland’s eastern shore. Over the past 70 years, waters of the nearby Chesapeake Bay have risen more than 10 inches. According to the report, the site could be largely underwater by 2050.
National parks and historical sites like Boston’s famous Faneuil Hall, a common stop on the Freedom Trail, are also threatened. The hall, which is where the Sons of Liberty planned protests against British colonial policies, was first built as a commercial center in 1742. Unfortunately, Faneuil Hall and the Blackstone Block, the most intact network of early colonial streets in all the U.S., also lie within the city’s 100-year tidal flood zone. Just in the past 10 years, extreme high tides—more than three and a half feet above the average high tide—have already occurred 10 times.
In addition to flooding, climate change is increasing droughts and wildfires, especially on the West Coast. In California, where the César E. Chávez National Monument was dedicated in 2012 to honor the farmworker leader’s legacy, extreme heat and drought are endangering the lives of men and women who harvest nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, vegetables and nuts. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the heart of the state’s agricultural sector, average summertime temperatures have been spiking rapidly, especially since the 2000s.
Of course, our nation’s treasures aren’t just found on land. Though the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report didn’t mention them, our ocean’s Marine Protected Areas—which are regions of the ocean where human activity has been placed under some restrictions—are also under threat from climate change. The more carbon we pump out, the more oceans warm and acidify, degrading coral reefs and corroding the shells of sea creatures.
For years, Earthjustice attorneys have worked to improve the health of our oceans by promoting sustainable fisheries and safeguarding marine species. With climate change putting a strain on oceans, we’re ramping up efforts to make our oceans more resilient. Most recently, we sued the National Marine Fisheries for failing to protect coral, which have declined by as much as 98 percent since the 1970s due to overfishing and disease. (Submit your comment to protect Caribbean coral here.)
Though some climate change-induced stressors are bound to occur (we’ve loaded too much carbon in the atmosphere to avoid all of them), that isn’t to say that things are hopeless. U.S. landmarks have been around for hundreds of years and have survived countless natural events. The Statue of Liberty is thought to have been hit by around 600 bolts of lightning every year since she was built, while archeological sites at Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park have been trampled by bands of wild horses.
But rather than just than just wait and see whether our historical legacies can weather climate change’s impacts, some local governments are taking a more pro-active approach by building up sea walls and relocating at-risk monuments. This is a great short term solution, but unless we want to move every last monument to higher ground, there also needs to be a long-term strategy in place that requires drastically cutting carbon emissions. I’m sure Lady Liberty, which weighs 450,000 pounds and has a 35-foot waistline, would agree.