JAMESTOWN — Nature has always been cruel here.
Bad drinking water and mosquitoes, among other problems, bedeviled those who created in 1607 the first permanent English settlement in North America.
Today the land itself is at risk, threatened by rising sea levels aided by a warming climate.
Most of Jamestown occupies an island that lies 3 feet or less above the tidal James River. If current projections hold, all of that low land will be underwater by 2100, and much of the island will be increasingly flooded long before then.
“It’s a national park, built around a historic event, that we may only see through photographs in a few decades,” said Skip Stiles, director of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk group raising concerns about rising sea levels.
In southern James City County about 60 miles southeast of Richmond, Jamestown is a beautiful and historic area where the explorer Captain John Smith and the Indian Pocahontas once trod. It is lovingly called America’s birthplace.
The rising waters are a problem right now. Erosion eats away at the land, and underground water, pushed up by the rising James, is damaging a historic glass-making furnace, officials say.
In addition, Hurricane Isabel flooded much of Jamestown Island in 2003, damaging a visitor center and causing $3.5 million in damage to ceramics, metal tools and other artifacts in the center. Hurricane Irene in 2011 damaged an aging seawall protecting Jamestown’s historic fort site.
It’s only going to get worse, officials say.
“What we’re seeing and what’s being predicted is the sea-level rise is going to exacerbate everything,” said Dorothy Geyer, the natural-resource specialist for the Colonial National Historical Park.
Most of the 1,473-acre Jamestown Island lies within the park, run by the National Park Service. The nonprofit Preservation Virginia owns and manages a 22½ -acre area.
Hurricane Isabel illustrated the increasing threat of the rising seas. Isabel caused flooding in coastal Virginia similar to that from a legendary, more powerful storm in 1933. Experts say that’s because Isabel’s storm surge rode in on waters about 10 inches higher than in 1933.
In other low places threatened by rising seas — say, Tangier Island or parts of Poquoson and Norfolk — you have the traumatic but final option of moving buildings and people.
But Jamestown is different. It is not people and businesses. It consists of historic sites, lands still harboring widespread underground artifacts, and wild marshes.
“You can’t move history,” said Carl Hobbs, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science marine geologist.
Asked about Jamestown’s future in 50 to 100 years, Hobbs said: “It’s grim.” Lands the colonists walked on “are not going to be there anymore.”
Water has long chewed away at Jamestown. The surrounding river level is about 4 feet higher than when the settlement was founded. A land bridge that once connected the Jamestown peninsula to the mainland was punctured by an 18th-century storm, officials say, creating the island. A man-made bridge makes the connection now.
To keep the river at bay, workers built a seawall at the island’s west end more than a century ago. In recent decades, the federal government has spent millions of dollars to place rocks along stretches of shoreline.
But protecting the island is going to get harder and harder, scientists say, because sea levels are rising faster and faster.
For thousands of years, Virginia’s coastal waters went up about a foot a century — partly because of a natural rise in global sea level and partly because the state’s coastal lands are sinking, scientists say.
But at least partly because of global warming, waters are rising now at about a 2-feet-a-century clip — double the historical rate — and experts expect the rate to increase even more in the coming decades.
If scientists’ projections hold, sea levels in southeastern Virginia — and the water level around Jamestown Island — would go up about 2 feet by 2050 and about 5 feet by 2100.
People are helping warm the planet by releasing heat-trapping gases during the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, scientists say. When water warms, it expands, raising sea levels. Melting polar ice sheets also raise the waters.
Two environmental groups, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council, call Jamestown one of the national parks “most vulnerable to climate disruption.”
In a 2010 report, the groups said: “Jamestown ... is in grave danger of being lost to the river. Even before the river rises high enough to threaten permanent inundation, rising water levels and stronger coastal storms could wash away much of the historic site and its irreplaceable resources.”
Jamestown is also economically important. Colonial National Historical Park, which includes Jamestown, Yorktown Battlefield and the Colonial Parkway, draws about 3.4 million visitors a year. Visitors spent $42.5 million in 2010, according to a report provided by the Park Service.
What can be done at Jamestown? Build more seawalls? Try to rescue many of the underground artifacts? Leave them in the ground?
The Park Service is looking at current studies and is planning additional research to determine how to adapt, said Geyer, the natural-resource specialist. “We’re still working that out.”
Driving past scenic marshes — wax myrtle shrubs, glistening waters — on a recent frigid day, Geyer said more than structures and artifacts are at risk. “We’re also looking at a really unique ecosystem here.”
By the marshes, several pines have died and turned bone white — “ghost trees,” they are called — because brackish water encroached on them as the James rose.
At Black Point on the island’s eastern side, where Indians once fished and hunted, Geyer pointed out a series of rocks placed offshore in the early 2000s to ward off erosion. Two bald eagles soared above.
The Park Service works closely at Jamestown with Preservation Virginia, whose 22½ acres include the original fort site and a 17th-century church tower.
Preservation Virginia has a plan that calls for, when storms approach, putting sandbags around the fort and church areas, which sit on some of the island’s highest ground. Some buildings constructed in recent years, including an archaeology museum, were elevated to protect them from flooding.
“We believe we are one of the most important sites in America, the first permanent colony, and it is our goal to preserve this for future generations,” said Sheryl Mays, director of operations for Preservation Virginia at Jamestown.
Hobbs, the geologist, isn’t so optimistic. “You can only fight nature for so long, because she will win.”