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Climate Change and National Historic Sites

Climate change is an issue that is widely discussed in our society; however this discussion does not often focus on the fact that climate change while having a profound effect on our future it also affects our past, in the damage it causes to historic places. Climate change is bringing about a rise in global temperatures, resulting in changes such as the thawing of permafrost, an increase in the occurrence of large storms along the coastline and the accelerated erosion of the coastline. These changes brought about by climate change are problematic in Canada because a number of Canada's Historic Places are in areas where they are now at risk, especially in the north and in coastal regions. There is a growing risk that some of Canada's Historic Places may be badly damaged or destroyed as a result of climate change. In response to the threat posed by climate change to Canada's heritage Parks Canada has begun engaging in studies and discussions of strategies for the preservation of our common heritage.

Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site of Canada lies just west of the town of Churchill, Manitoba, one of the coldest regions in Canada. Built over the course of forty years in the eighteenth century this National Historic Site has endured harsh Prince of Wales Fort/Fort-Prince-de-Galles winds and freezing temperatures, favourable only to polar bears, for over 200 years. Despite damage caused by an attack on the fort by French soldiers, which drove the resident Hudson's Bay Company from the fort in 1782, and subsequent abandonment for 150 years the fort has remained largely intact. It is only within the last twenty years that the stone walls have begun to show the cracks and bulges of water damage, degradation of mortar from the increased sun radiation and temperature. After over 200 years of solid existence this monumental reminder of Canada's past is being stolen away by the relentless progress of climate change.

Just over 200 kilometres south of Prince of Wales Fort, another of Canada's historic places is in danger from the effects of climate change. Built in 1788, the third incarnation of the York Factory stands on the Hayes River in Northern Manitoba. This National Historic Site was an important lynch pin in the Hudson's Bay Company fur trade for two and a half centuries. Unfortunately this long standing historic place could be completely gone in asYork Factory little as 100 years. The ground underneath York Factory is in a state of permafrost, but as the climate warms this permafrost has begun to thaw so that the ground supporting the factory has become less solid thus the Hayes River that runs next to the factory is able to erode the banks more quickly. Every year the river encroaches further on the York Factory, the remains of the first two York Factories have already been lost to the river. The York Factory is an especially important historic site in connection to Canada's historic fur trade and its loss would be the loss of an important connection to our past.

The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site on the coast of Nova Scotia is another extremely important part of Canada's past, a location of profound struggle between the British and French Empires during the Seven Year's War. Also important to the site are the surrounding Fortress of Louisbourg/Forteresse-de-Louisbourggrounds which could still contain important archaeological remains from the original fortress and town of Louisbourg. While a few decades ago large storms occurred on the coast of Nova Scotia only every few years, such storms have begun to occur almost every single year possibly as a result of climate change. Every year the storm surge brought on by these large storms wash away more of the shoreline around the Fortress of Louisbourg and take important archaeological remains with it. If this trend continues it could result in the loss of a terrible number of archaeological remains that provide context to the fort and Canada's history.

An extensive National Historic Site threatened by climate change is the Dawson Historical Complex which is comprised of the eighteen historical buildings, built inDawson Historical Complex/Complexe historique de Dawson the nineteenth century during the Yukon Gold Rush, which form the core of Dawson City. An important feature of Dawson City is the fact that been built so far north means that the city was built on ground in a state of permafrost. Recent climate change makes it more and more likely that the permafrost upon which Dawson City was built will begin to thaw. The loss of the stable permafrost ground upon which the historic buildings of Dawson City stand will compromise the stability and architecture of the buildings, and result in the loss of an important historic site from an important page in Canadian history.

These are a number of Canadian Historic Places threatened by climate change. As climates become warmer more permafrost ground will melt, the sea levels will rise, severe storms will become more frequent and our fragile national heritage will face increased danger of destruction. Historic Places are infinitely important to understanding and learning more about Canada's past but the future of these structures, which have stood for hundreds of years, is uncertain. Climate change is not simply a danger for the future; it also poses a significant threat to our past.

Sources :

- ICOMOS, 2005 Heritage At Risk 2006-2007 : York Factory

- « Impact of Climate Change on Prince of Wales Fort: the conservation process and the adaptation strategy », Lyne Fontaine, Direction de la conservation du patrimoine, Travaux publics et Services gouvernementaux Canada

- TAC 2009 Environmental Achievement Award Submission Yukon Highways & Public Works - Front Street Paving Project, Dawson City, Yukon:  Adapting to Climate Change in a National Historic District

- Yukon College - Northern Climate ExChange