As the sea rises, the Boston Harbor Islands are among the nation’s most endangered historic sites


Ocean dangers from climate change pose “the greatest and most immediate threat” to the islands, said Katherine Malone-France, conservation officer for the National Trust, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC

Erosion and storm damage, she said, “are both active and destructive to a wide range of places and sites of historical significance on the islands.”

As ocean levels rise and storms intensify, once formidable dikes have broken. Historic sites such as Boston Light, the country’s oldest lighthouse, and 19th-century Fort Warren on Georges Island are under threat. Additionally, accelerating erosion from the sand, clay and cobbles that make up much of the islands has exposed human remains and coffins on Gallops Island, where smallpox victims have been treated. and quarantined.

Fort Warren on Georges Island is one of the endangered sites. National Trust list is a call to action on global warmingDavid L. Ryan / Globe Staff

For Native Americans, the damage dramatically alters what has long been sacred ground.

“There may be Native American remains on the islands, but that’s not the only thing that makes them sacred,” said Elizabeth Solomon, a Massachusett tribe elder in Ponkapoag. “What is really important to us is that they are a place where we can interact with the minds of our ancestors.”

The importance of the National Trust list “runs deep,” said Kathy Abbott, president of the Boston Harbor Now nonprofit group. “I hope this will draw attention to the problem and to the need to interest and involve more people. It will be necessary for everyone to understand what we need to do to solve this problem. “

If trends continue, Abbott said, “the islands will be eroded and reduced, and eventually they will be overtaken by storms at times. They will shrink in size and probably in height.

Joseph Bagley, the city of Boston archaeologist, said parts of some islands are eroding up to 3 feet per year. The Islands, a series of “drowned drumlins” left by retreating glaciers, are unique to the United States.

“The islands are considered to be these natural resources, but with this natural landscape lies this human past that has existed that we actively lose with every storm,” Bagley said.

Thanks to a $ 100,000 grant from the town’s community preservation committee, a team including Bagley, Native Americans and others will come up with a “triage list” of the islands’ most endangered sites this summer as part of the project. ‘an archaeological climate plan,’ Bagley said.

People were strolling on the beach at Spectacle Island, which is one of the islands in Boston Harbor.
People were strolling on the beach at Spectacle Island, which is one of the islands in Boston Harbor.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

The need for protection, as the National Trust designation underscores, is urgent.

“We know there are 103 archaeological sites that have been found on the harbor islands, but there are probably many, many more,” said Malone-France. “They remind us how closely our natural and cultural resources are intertwined, and we must manage them together. “

An endangered National Trust list does not include additional protections for the islands, which are governed as a national and state park by a partnership of 11 agencies including the city, state and the National Park Service.

However, the list is meant to be a call to action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“I am grateful in some ways that this designation may help us all to consider more deeply the choices of the past and the choices of the present,” said Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, Chief Environment, Energy and of Boston Energy. open space.

In recent years, Boston has experienced more so-called sunny flooding than almost any other coastal community in the country, according to a 2020 study report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 2017, high tides flooded parts of the city for 22 days, a local record and more than any other East Coast community that year. In 2000, the number for Boston was six. NOAA defines flooding on sunny days as waters that rise about 2 feet above the typical high tide.

The Boston Harbor Islands are among the nation's most endangered historic sites.
The Boston Harbor Islands are among the nation’s most endangered historic sites.Globe staff

Malone-France said one of the factors in choosing the country’s most endangered sites was the continued efforts to save them.

“We are looking for sites that already have dedicated local partners who are fighting for these places,” said Malone-France. “And we’re looking for places that just don’t have threats but have potential solutions. . . which could serve as a model for other historic places.

Malone-France pointed out the climate plan of archeology, one of the first of all the cities of the country. Boston and partner organizations are also engaged in an innovative project, funded by the Stone Foundation, to design “nature-based solutions” to water-borne damage from climate change.

“These are designed approaches that mimic some aspect of nature in trying to control a threat,” said Paul Kirshen, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in the School for the Environment, and director of the Stone Living Lab.

An example of a nature-based man-made solution already exists at Clippership Wharf in East Boston, where architects designed a terraced shore with new salt marshes and rocky beaches behind a sea wall.

The lab’s ongoing study on ways to mitigate coastal damage includes contributions from UMass Boston, the City of Boston, the National Park Service, and Boston Harbor Now. It stands to reason that traditionally used pads such as dull concrete walls eventually erode, Kirshen said.

Damaged and eroded seawall on Gallop's Island in Boston Harbor.
Damaged and eroded seawall on Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor.Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

“Look at the way nature deals with flooding – the soft surfaces and they are tilted. They also have vegetation on them, and these absorb energy and provide habitat, ”Kirshen said.

The Living Lab has established a monitoring station on Rainsford Island, but construction of large-scale experimental structures will await the completion of the licensing process.

In the meantime, the islands are losing ground. Although they erode and move naturally, Bagley envisioned a drastically altered outlook going forward.

“They will dance, but they won’t go away completely,” Bagley said. Even so, he added, “they will be drastically different from what they look like today.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at


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