I was attacked by an ocean recently. I lost a hamstring and a tendon in one leg when a wave blindsided me. I'm sure it was nothing personal. Just as we are largely unaware of the damage we are doing to the ocean, the ocean was unaware of the damage it was doing to me. Or, more importantly, the damage it was doing to the shoreline.

It also is unaware of the damage people are doing to it. We treat the ocean as a handy garbage pit, tossing in everything from runoff farm nutrients to ship waste to human sewage to spilled oil to plastic soda can holders.


While harmful, these are by comparison little things. We also are changing it drastically because of human-engineered climate change. The warmer air is heating up the ocean, making it swell and changing some global currents. The warmer air and water also is melting glaciers and icecaps and increasing the volume of water so that the current borders can't contain all we are giving the oceans to hold.

So the oceans expand a bit. They swallow up low-lying islands and inundate shorelines. The oceans aren't fighting back by doing this, this is just something they can't help but do. A new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month said the oceans are rising at the fastest rate in at least 2,800 years and that the rate is accelerating. If it rises by three or four feet by 2100, that won't be the end of it, it will keep on rising.

The effects are not something just affecting distant shores. Annapolis, for instance, experienced roughly 32 days of flooding between 1955 and 1964, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Between 2005 and 2014 that numbered multiplied more than tenfold to 394 days.

The swollen ocean has consequences that man is slow to recognize, appreciate and try to mitigate.

One of the most overlooked effects of sea-level rise and increased storm surges is that they are erasing access to our history. Rising sea levels and shoreline erosion are impacting, often completely destroying, both historical and archaeological sites.

There are two kinds of archaeological sites: those we know about and those we don't know about. Those we know about can be broken down into those that we know exist but know little, if anything, about and those we have enough knowledge of to evaluate their value. Obviously, we have no way to telling how valuable the unknown sites are.

But what we do know about all these sites is that they likely will soon be beyond our ability to examine them.

Jamestown, Va., the site of one of the first English landings in the Colonies, was long thought to have been washed into the James River. When it turned out that most of it wasn't, the amount of information we have gained about life in the early 1600s is overwhelming.

If we could find the lost Ralegh colony in North Carolina, its revelations could be mind-boggling. Jamestown's sister colony, Fort St. George in Maine, was spared from the ocean, and when it was uncovered recently it was full or artifacts and information.

The leading hypothesis of how humans first came to the Americas is that they traveled around the edge of glaciers connecting Asia with Alaska on the Bering Land Bridge. But it remains only a hypothesis because when the glaciers melted the sea level rose and any signs of human habitation were swallowed beneath the rising waters. How and when the first Americans got here remains a giant mystery.

States, such as Maryland, are aware of the problem. The Maryland Historical Trust has tried to identify as many threatened sites as possible and wants to both explore them further, to see which should get priority, and to check other site-potential areas to see what, if anything, is there.

But it can't. The amount of money the state has given the trust to do its job has decreased over the last dozen years and then a few years ago totally dried up. Rather than realizing that time is being frivolously wasted and something must be done quickly, Gov. Larry Hogan's budget takes an approach that since the trust has been starving you for years, it is a good candidate to keep on starving. (The amount of money involved is minuscule.)

There is much still to be learned about Maryland's past — pre-contact, colonial and modern — but if we don't even look we may never know what it is.

The ocean isn't responsible for what it does. More and more we are. The longer we refuse to recognize this and the longer we refuse to do anything to meaningfully limit the changes (it already is too late to stop them), the more urgent it is to take steps to mitigate the damage. Saving our history is one, very low-cost way.


The ocean won't and can't wait. We shouldn't either.

Myron Beckenstein is associated with the Archeological Society of Maryland; his email is myronbeck@verizon.net.