Jamestown is drowning

Jamestown Island
Erosion control on Jamestown Island, VA

Historic Jamestown celebrated Archeology Day today with various events and demonstrations to make history seem more authentic. Artifacts discovered on the island in the past 30 years give glimpses of how the first English colonists lived before they moved to higher ground in 1699 to make Middle Plantation their new capital (Williamsburg). Today’s program discussed the people (Native Americans, Whites, Blacks) and their occupations but nothing about the hydrology that dominates and determines who can live there.

I was reminded of the island’s fragility this summer when drawn to the James riverbank by a loud noise. Workmen were loading blocks of granite from a barge to build higher defenses from inundation.

The English colonists arrived at the worst possible time in 1607. A serious drought lasted from around 1606 to 1612, the driest years in eight centuries. The James River was much lower than today without refreshing rain in the watershed. The water at Jamestown was more saline, around 16 ppt compared to a tidal range of 3 to 10 units today (and 35 at the river entrance).  The drought offered a slight compensation by encouraging the spread of oysters further upstream for human harvesting.

Measuring the conductivity of ponds across the island, I found the water remarkably salty everywhere. The low-lying island is probably washed over by occasional hurricanes. That helps to explain why there are fewer amphibians than expected (few species tolerate salt). The environment is getting more hostile from sea-level rise.

If Archeology Day is still held at the end of this century it will be sad. Island visiting will be virtual because the excavated and reconstructed sites, including the original fort, will be underwater by then. Children who came today should keep their photos for their grandchildren to see and sigh.

By Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology. Career as professor & research director spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. Retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and recover from 'nature deficit disorder'. Currently a visiting scholar at William & Mary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Gosden

3 comments

      1. Thank you! Was wondering if it was somehow measurable in tree rings or other annual markers and this helps explain.

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