ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
People have lived along Florida's coastline for centuries, but archaeologists say the remains of those ancient settlements could disappear as sea levels rise thanks to climate change. NPR's Greg Allen reports on how researchers in one Florida county plan to preserve the most vulnerable sites.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At a county park in Boca Raton, the playground and the public beach are the main attractions. Most visitors are unaware that it's also one of the oldest settlements in America.
APRIL WATSON: So basically, under our feet is where the site is.
ALLEN: Archaeologist April Watson ducks under branches and sweeps away leaves at a site that, thousands of years ago, was part of an extensive village complex.
WATSON: This particular spot is a shell midden. Basically, they were eating, right? They got a lot of shellfish - giant coquina, which takes diving. You know, it's like, they're about 18 feet down. And then as time went on, they were mostly going for oysters.
ALLEN: Working with her students from Lynn University, Watson excavated sections of this ancient settlement. She and her collaborators are now dating and analyzing the artifacts. It was the first time in nearly a half-century archaeologists had worked there. But as sea level rise increases, Watson says there's a new urgency to investigate sites that, at some point, will be underwater. About 50 miles north, on Florida's Atlantic coast, the Jupiter Lighthouse sits atop a Native American settlement.
SARAH RIGSBY-AYERS: It's been occupied for about 6,000 years, which is pretty cool - like, continuous occupation.
ALLEN: Sara Rigsby-Ayers is with the Florida Public Archaeology Network. Along with the historic preservation department in Palm Beach County, she's been identifying sites most at risk from sea level rise. This pre-Columbian settlement tops the list.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
ALLEN: The shoreline here is eroding at an accelerating pace - in some areas, up to seven feet a year. Some of that is from storms and boat wakes, but Rigsby-Ayers says the rising sea level and record high tides are also factors, washing away bits of Florida's history.
RIGSBY-AYERS: I know the last time my co-worker was out leading a kayak tour, one of our graduate assistants - she actually saw pottery eroding out of here. So we'll come out, and we'll see, you know, cultural material just being washed away into the sea.
ALLEN: Peter DeWitt is with the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the lighthouse and the ancient sites here. He says work will begin soon on a project aimed at stopping or at least slowing the erosion.
PETER DEWITT: They're going to be installing a living shoreline, which includes in-water structures to attenuate wave action as well as mangrove and silt marsh planting to try and stabilize the sand in place.
ALLEN: In Palm Beach County alone, Sarah Rigsby-Ayers says more than 200 archaeological sites will be damaged or inundated by a three-foot rise in sea level expected by the end of the century. Statewide, more than 16,000 sites are at risk. Preserving all of them, she says, just isn't possible.
RIGSBY-AYERS: I guess in a perfect world, we would be able to save everything, but we don't live in a perfect world. So we're happy to just try and get as much information as possible from the sites.
ALLEN: That means full archeological investigations where possible, more limited measures in other cases. This kind of work - protecting historic and archaeological properties from sea level rise - is going on in some other countries, notably Scotland. In the U.S., archaeologists are raising alarms about vulnerable coastal sites from Louisiana to Virginia. But particularly in Florida, Lynn University archaeologist April Watson says, there's a lot at stake.
WATSON: A lot of people think that Florida doesn't really have much of a history, but we actually have some of the oldest sites in the country. People were building mounds in Florida before they were building the pyramids in Egypt. This is still important.
ALLEN: Among the things Watson says we can learn from the work is how ancient Floridians adapted to sea level rise. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BYRNE AND BRIAN ENO SONG, "THE LIGHTHOUSE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.