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Digital tools can preserve historic sites threatened by the effects of climate change

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Many of Florida's historic sites and artifacts are facing near certain destruction as a result of climate change. It's already taking a toll in some parts. Here's Brendan Rivers of member station WJCT.

BRENDAN RIVERS, BYLINE: Just a few miles south of Jacksonville, archaeologist Emily Jane Murray is taking measurements at a small bit of forested shoreline on the banks of the Tolomato River. Underneath our feet is what Murray calls shell midden, a big pile of shells and historically significant trash that's accumulated over the past 6,000 years or so.

EMILY JANE MURRAY: I'm always amazed every time I come, like, just how much higher the tide seems at this site.

RIVERS: Murray's mapping the shoreline to track how water levels have changed here, part of a project looking at how climate change is threatening and, in many cases, already harming archaeological sites. There's a well here that was built in the 1800s. Today, the river is lapping at its base, but aerial pictures from the 1940s show a hundred feet of shoreline separating it from the water.

MURRAY: And it could have been even further out back in 1800 when the well was put in.

RIVERS: A similar story is playing out 10 miles south at the iconic Castillo de San Marcos in historic downtown St. Augustine. The Spanish built the fort in 1672. Steven Roberts with the National Park Service says the downtown area floods nearly every month during high tides, and that's only going to happen more often as seas rise due to climate change.

STEVEN ROBERTS: As the parking lot floods, it becomes harder and harder for visitors to get to the fort. And obviously, we see less visitation on those days.

RIVERS: That's a big deal, as the main economic driver here is heritage tourism - visiting historic places - and the Castillo is the main attraction. It brings in about 800,000 visitors who spend an estimated $40 million a year. The Castillo's walls are coquina, a soft, porous stone made of compressed shells. And that's an issue, Roberts says, as climate scientists predict seas could rise as much as three feet in the next 50 years.

ROBERTS: What it would do is it would overtop some of our sea walls, and that water, over time, continuing to press against the soft coquina stone, could definitely weaken the foundation and, over time, erode the foundation, as well as the walls of the Castillo.

RIVERS: So the city of St. Augustine is taking steps to fight back the rising tides. Since 2016, they've spent tens of millions on preventing floods. They've raised sea walls, retrofitted drainage systems and elevated structures. And earlier this year, they appointed a new chief resilience officer. But all of these projects probably won't be enough if climate change continues unabated. With that in mind, the National Park Service is trying something else. It's turning to the Center for Digital Heritage at the University of South Florida.

LORI COLLINS: We use a series of different types of digital strategies to document and record cultural heritage locations.

RIVERS: That's Digital Heritage Center director Lori Collins.

COLLINS: We can do things like replicate, fabricate, present things in virtual reality that are very realistic, present things in augmented reality for the classroom to let people explore and engage right in their own classroom, and then we're doing things with imaging where we're creating virtual tours for the parks.

RIVERS: Local governments are doing what they can, but the cost of protecting cultural sites along Florida's coast from climate change far exceeds their limited resources. For those that can't be saved, digital strategies may be the best way to make sure these historic sites are preserved for future generations.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Rivers in Jacksonville, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW CENTURY CLASSICS' "DRIFT MOTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brendan Rivers