Historic Jamestown: Assessing the Climate Change Impacts on North America’s First European Settlement

Friday, September 16, 2016
Harsh winters, such as this painting (by Sidney King) of the 1607-1608 winter, challenged the survival of the early colonists at Jamestown (Image credit: NPS/COLO).

Harsh winters, such as this painting (by Sidney King) of the 1607-1608 winter, challenged the survival of the early colonists at Jamestown (Image credit: NPS/COLO).

NE CSC climate scientist and postdoctoral fellow, Alex Bryan, assisted Colonial National Historic Park with identifying the climate stressors most relevant to preserving the Park's historic resources, and provided a suitable set of climate model projections to aid in adaptation planning.  

You probably have heard the names Pocahontas and John Smith. You may even know their stories, or at least the Disney retelling of it. Some may even know that, today, if you visit Colonial National Historical Park, you can walk on the same ground they walked 400 years ago, and peruse through a reconstruction of the triangular fort where our earliest settlers lived — or struggled to — including the church where Pocahontas married John Rolfe (not Smith — don’t let Disney fool you!) What you may not have thought about is, if Pocahontas and John Smith were alive today, would they recognize the landscape? The climate? How about in 50 or 100 years?

An artist’s depiction (above) of a snow laden landscape in the first years after the English settlement on Jamestown Island portrays a scene more commonplace than today in more ways than one. Besides the obvious changes (clothing, buildings, farm equipment), winter conditions are also not what they used to be. Over the last century — at least — annual snowfall totals in eastern Virginia have declined, with more winter precipitation falling as rain, leading to thinner — sometimes non-existent — snowpacks. During the summer months, the landscape is getting battered by stronger hurricanes, accompanied by heavier rainfalls and stronger winds, and compounded by the rising Atlantic Ocean. These changes can (and are expected to) have drastic impacts on the landscape and ecosystems, which the Park is trying to preserve in order to provide an authentic experience for visitors, allowing them to see the landscape as the original settlers and natives would have seen it. In addition, many of the historic structures, including the original fort site, are located just feet from the coast of the James River, and thus the structures and artifacts within are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surge. In fact, one of the three posts of the triangular fort is already under water due to past erosion — unrelated to climate change.

To help the Park protect these important cultural and natural assets, the Park has partnered with the National Park Service Northeast Region and the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island (URI-CRC) to assess the vulnerability of the Park’s natural, cultural, and facilities resources to climate change. NE CSC climate scientist and postdoctoral fellow, Alex Bryan, assisted the group with identifying the climate stressors most relevant to these resources, and provided a suitable set of climate model projections to aid the assessment. The science support teams and Park staff convened in Jamestown earlier this month for the first of three workshops with the goal of compiling the list of assets and determining the exposure level and sensitivity of each to a variety of climate stressors (e.g., temperature, extreme rainfall, wind, flooding, erosion, drought). The remaining two workshops, to happen starting this fall, will look at the natural, inherent ability of each asset to adapt to climate change (i.e. its “adaptive capacity”), and consider strategies to help preserve those assets that cannot adapt naturally. 

 

View the Climate Assessments and Scenario Planning (CLASP) project page >>