Climate change becomes comprehensible here: Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in North America, is in serious danger. The cradle of the USA threatens to be flooded in the long term.

Flooding has continued to rise overnight and is now covering the old Jamestown Cemetery. Michael Lavin, wading through the water in hiking boots on the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America, is alarmed. “All the archaeological resources that we haven’t been able to examine could be destroyed,” says the 47-year-old, who is responsible for preserving the historic site. “We have to do something and we have to do it now.”

It is climate change and the associated rising sea level that threatens Jamestown located on a river island on the Atlantic coast in the state of Virginia. The current flood level, around one meter, threatens to become the norm here by the end of the century.

Jamestown: “We knew this as a dry area”

The sea level in the region has risen by around 45 centimeters since 1927. In early May, Jamestown, founded as a British settlement in 1607, was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most threatened historic sites in the United States.

“We always knew this to be a dry area,” says chief archaeologist David Givens, who, like Lavin, works at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “This is a perfect example of sea level rise, of climate change and its impacts.”

Archaeological finds partly already badly destroyed

The archaeologists are trying to protect the excavation sites in Jamestown with sandbags and tarpaulins. Because the rich history of the place is still being researched. Indigenous people lived in the area 12,000 years before the arrival of the English settlers. Then, in 1619, Jamestown was where the first slaves from Africa who had been taken to the English colonies in North America arrived.

In 2013, by examining the bones of a young woman, it was determined that she was a victim of cannibalism during a famine in the settlement in the winter of 1609 and 1610. But such insights could become impossible in the future. Archaeologist Caitlin Delmas says that recently unearthed bones were like “sponges” and therefore can no longer be examined.

“Over time, these archaeological sites will no longer be accessible, they will be washed out by salt water, by flooding,” says Delmas’ boss Givens. “I think that’s what scares me the most.” The work of the archaeologists in Jamestown is “almost like in a war, like in a trench with sandbags”. “It’s a constant struggle for us.”

Five years to save Jamestown from sinking

A dam built in the early 1900s to protect Jamestown from the water is currently being strengthened. In the James River Estuary, several barges are transporting blocks of granite intended for the $2 million project.

But this is only the beginning. Studies for even better protection have already been started, the costs are likely to be in the millions of dollars. And time is pressing. “We have a five-year window for Jamestown to seriously mitigate the effects of climate change,” said Katherine Malone-France of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s urgent.”