As sea levels rise, we need to find ways to adapt. Ancient civilizations could give us some tips.
WITH rising seas lapping at coastal cities and threatening to engulf entire islands in the not-too-distant future, it's easy to assume our only option will be to abandon them and head for the hills. There may be another way, however. Archaeological sites in the Caribbean, dating back to 5000 BC, show that some ancient civilisations had it just as bad as anything we are expecting. Yet not only did they survive a changing coastline and more storm surges and hurricanes: they stayed put and successfully adapted to the changing world. Now archaeologists are working out how they managed it and finding ways that we might learn from their example.
The sea-level rise that our ancestors dealt with had nothing to do with human-induced climate change, of course: it was a hangover from the last ice age. As the massive ice sheet that lay on North America melted, the continent was buoyed upwards. As a result, the northern Caribbean, on the other end of the same tectonic plate, sank, making seas in the region rise up to 5 metres over 5000 years.
Although the cause of this rise was very different to what we face today, the effects were probably the same. Rising waters not only nibble away at coastlines, they also mean that hurricanes and storm surges reach further inland. Higher seas also mean that groundwater becomes contaminated with salt, and as the water table rises the waterlogged land becomes more likely to flood.