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Please Stop Building Houses Exactly Where Wildfires Start

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Built well, a city should provide a bulwark against disaster. Fundamentally, all cities are fortresses.

Or at least they should be. If a city is a fortress, where’s the wall? The edges of North American cities today aren’t edge-like at all. Most of them, especially in the West, ooze outward in a gradient, urban to suburban to exurban to rural to wild. Some megacities cycle through suburban and exurban forms without ever manifesting anything that looks like a downtown, much less a high street.

Which would all be academic, or maybe merely aesthetic, if it didn’t make cities fail at their most important job. Cities like that, researchers are learning, make disasters worse. And they’re not the exception; they’re the norm.

For example, human construction at what’s called the Wildland-Urban Interface worsens the risk of wildfire. In last year’s insane fire season—not just California’s worst fire year on record, but one that left much of the continent’s boreal forest aflame—the blazes began where high winds connected with fuel (plants) and sparks (downed power lines, open fires, and other trappings of civilization).

Now guess where people build lots of new houses. Go on—guess.

According to a new analysis of housing in the WUI, the trend goes up and to the right. According to Census data, between 1990 and 2010 in the continental US, the WUI grew from 224,325 square miles to 297,299 square miles. The number of new houses grew there, too—by 12.6 million. The big quote from the paper: “Even though the WUI occupies less than one tenth of the land area of the conterminous United States, 43 percent of all new houses were built there.”

The Wildland-Urban Interface got smaller in the western US, but the number of houses and people in it went up.

Radeloff et al./SILVIS Lab/University of Wisconsin-Madison

Friends. Friends. Don’t build there. “Houses are being built everywhere,” says Volker Radeloff, a professor of forestry at the University of Wisconsin and the lead author of the new paper. “But a lot of them are still built on the outskirts. That is sprawl.”

Sprawl causes all sorts of problems, not just wildfires—more invasive species and more domesticated critters like cats and dogs wreaking havoc on local ecosystems. It means air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution. And of course, sprawl makes climate change worse. Not only do denser cities in more temperate areas emit less carbon, but just last week researchers published evidence that suburbs emit more carbon than denser urban areas.

Even taking into account the 2008 housing crash, housing units in the WUI went up along with its size and population.

Radeloff et al./SILVIS Lab/University of Wisconsin-Madison

And climate change makes wildfires more frequent, and worse. “It’s a feedback loop,” says Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at UC Berkeley. “We’ve made it very hard across the country to build in existing urban neighborhoods, which have been shown repeatedly to have lower carbon emission per capita…and we’re subsidizing people living out in sprawling, more vulnerable areas outside cities.”

Fires aren’t the only problem here. Rainstorms over fire-denuded hillsides cause mudslides. Coastal cities expanding across their floodplains and onto barrier islands become more vulnerable to hurricanes and storm surges. Wide, low cities eventually cover land that was once agricultural. And when it comes to climate change, nothing is local; the carbon emitted by the sprawling urban agglomerations of the Eastern seaboard or the desert southwest exacerbates the climate-driven problems of the coasts.

The red in boxes 3 and 4 show new WUI in Santa Rosa, California and Gaitlinburg, Tennessee in 2010. Both places experienced wildfires in the last two years.

Radeloff et al./SILVIS Lab/University of Wisconsin-Madison

The hills, the forests, the edge of the desert—these are beautiful places. “I understand why people like to live there. In some places they’re the most expensive places to live, like Southern California, but in other places the dense urban areas are not affordable for many folks,” Radeloff says. “There’s a lot of money to be made by building there. My gut feeling is that people know it’s a problem, but walking away from those economic opportunities is hard.”

In cities across the country, interest groups, activists, and residents are arguing about the construction of infill housing, working on ways to make cities denser, more walkable, more oriented toward transit instead of cars. If you’re the kind of person who likes cities, all those things make cities more likable. They also reduce carbon emissions, which in the end helps keep those cities safe (among other good outcomes). The late-20th century mode of city-building—unplanned, foaming metastasis around big-box stores—is no way to build a fortress. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Fires on the Land

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Process of Elimination

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Karl Campbell is a craftsman bedeviled by bad tools. He’s a middle-aged, medium-size, muscular Australian with a five-day beard and an intense gaze who seems perpetually coiled, even angry, when at rest. He’s smiling and relaxed only when his body is in motion—preferably fixing something, building something, or killing something.

His craft—and his mission—is saving as many endangered species as he can, in what he reckons the most effective way. It’s a grueling job by which he creates life out of death, preventing the catastrophe of irreversible extinction with a tide of blood. He kills goats and rats and other human-­introduced animals that threaten rare island creatures, but his tools—traps, long-range rifles, and poisons—are brutal, deployable only on a small scale and wildly indiscriminate. To excise the rat, say, from an ecosystem requires a sledgehammer that falls on many species.

Ecology is complex, even on tiny islands, and things don’t always go according to plan. In 2012, for instance, Campbell, who works for an organization called Island Conservation, helped round up the 60 Galapagos hawks that lived on Pinzón Island, a steep volcanic nubbin in the Galapagos chain, so they wouldn’t eat the rats that Campbell was about to poison. But when the rare raptors were released back into the wild after a couple of weeks, they began dropping like flies. It turned out the poison was lurking in lava lizards—hawk prey.

Campbell is now preparing for an even riskier maneuver: using a fiercely potent poison for the complete obliteration of rats on a 70-square-mile Galapagos island called Floreana. The island was once home to a chocolate-brown bird with a perky tail called the Floreana mockingbird, but the rats eat its eggs and chicks, so the bird remains on only a couple of islets. Once the rats are gone, the mockingbird could be brought back to the place for which it was named. The rats’ destruction will be brought about by a carpet-­bombing of lethal pellets: Some 300 tons of poisoned cereal will be dumped from helicopters, enough to kill every rat on the island. The problem is that 150 people and their farm animals also live on Floreana.

On a cool and sunny Monday last August, Campbell and I hopped in a local farmer’s battered Toyota Land Cruiser and headed for the highlands of Floreana. Rats are no friends to farmers either, and Campbell pointed to some corn in Claudio Cruz’s fields that had been nibbled away by sharp rodent teeth. Cruz had stacked two bright-red shipping containers up on blocks—one a gift from Island Conservation, one he bought himself. They will be used to store uncontaminated animal feed when the poison comes, tentatively in 2020. Island Conservation will also build coops, sties, and stables for the island’s chickens, pigs, and horses. It will buy sentinel pigs that will live outside the sties and be slaughtered at intervals so their livers can be tested for poison. The other pigs won’t be able to emerge until the sentinel pigs’ livers are clear. This might take three years. Parents will have to keep close watch over small children lest they eat pellets off the ground. Scores of native animals—likely including finches and short-eared owls—will be captured and held in aviaries both on and off the island. Campbell expects it will take 10 years and $26 million to clear this small island of rats.

All this is why Campbell has begun pushing for research into a much more precise and effective tool—one you might not associate with nature-loving conservationists. Self-­perpetuating synthetic genetic machines called gene drives could someday alter not just one gene or one rat or even a population of rats but an entire species—of rats, mosquitoes, ticks, or any creature. And this biological technology promises to eliminate these destructive animals without shedding a drop of blood. So Campbell has spent the past few years dividing his time between old-fashioned killing and traveling the world to pitch the gene drive approach to ecologists, ethicists, and prospective donors. He’s not alone in his enthusiasm. Institutions from the US military’s research agency to the Gates Foundation to the government of New Zealand are looking to gene drives as possible solutions for big problems (malaria, Lyme disease, species extinction). But the methods also contain the threat of unleashing another problem: They could change species, populations, and ecosystems in unintended and unstoppable ways.

Karl Campbell is looking for a better method than poisons to eradicate island rats.

Jake Stangel

When Linda Cayot, project coordinator for a Galapagos-based restoration program called Project Isabela, picked Campbell for an internship with the organization back in the late 1990s, she recalls that one of his virtues was a “certain macho army roughness.” Campbell had learned to shoot firearms and repair vehicles in the Australian Army Reserve. He’d spent a few weeks volunteering to catch and arrest antelope poachers in Malawi. He was well suited to the demands of the work on the islands: Once he slashed open his thumb and had a friend stitch it up in the field; another time he came back from a visit to a remote volcano with most of the skin on his feet peeling off. He didn’t bother to mention it.

Perhaps because of his disdain for comfort, Campbell thrived in the harsh volcanic landscape of the Galapagos, with its strange and wonderful wildlife. Because humans, with their talent for destruction, found these volcanic islands so late in history, 95 percent of the original and unique species remain. There are giant tortoises, marine iguanas that shoot salt snot from their nostrils, and waved albatrosses that glide on 8-foot-wide wings, eyes like black tapioca balls.

When humans did establish permanent residency on the islands, starting in 1805, they brought beasts of burden, animals for meat, and the clever and voracious rat, hidden in the holds of their ships. The animals of the Galapagos, like island species everywhere, had let down their defenses over evolutionary time and simply could not cope with these bulldozing newcomers. Some had lost their ability to fly away; some had taken up nesting on the ground, with their eggs out in the open; perhaps most dangerously, they had lost their fear. Even when invaders didn’t eat the native fauna, they did damage in other ways. On the Galapagos, goats ate so many plants that one estimate claimed that 60 percent of the Galapagos’ 194 endemic plants were threatened with extinction—not to mention the islands’ giant tortoises, which were starving to death with no plants to eat.

For Project Isabela, Campbell shot goats with semiautomatic rifles, mostly from helicopters, occasionally on foot with dogs. But he quickly recognized the imperfection of these methods. He came up with a strategy for inducing sexual receptivity in females in order to lure other goats out of hiding, round them up, and shoot them. The resulting “Mata Hari” goats were a big success and propelled Campbell to a kind of fame, but he dismisses the technique as a mere “incremental innovation.” He was looking for a “transformative innovation.”

In 2006 Campbell went to work for Island Conservation, taking his skills beyond the Galapagos. He has helped rid San Nicolas Island, in California, of feral cats; Choros Island, Chile, of rabbits; and Desecheo Island, Puerto Rico, of rhesus macaques. But every eradication is a grind, and Campbell is vexed by the scale of the problem: There are 465,000 islands on Earth, home to 41 percent of endangered land vertebrates, and most of the islands with endangered species also have introduced species on them. “We are barely scratching the surface,” Campbell says.

Then, in 2011, Campbell stumbled upon an idea that smelled like the transformative innovation he had been looking for.

An entomologist at North Carolina State University named Fred Gould had written a paper positing that genetic engineering techniques that had been used with insects were ripe for deployment in other troublesome species like rodents. (Along with driving island species extinct, rats and mice eat enough rice each year to feed 180 million people, and they transmit Lyme disease and hantavirus.) Scientists could use genetic engineering to favor certain traits, Gould pointed out, and push them through wild populations. Normally, for any given gene that comes in different types, an offspring has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mother’s version and a 50 percent chance of inheriting the father’s version. But some genes have naturally evolved a way to cheat this system—if one parent has the gene an offspring has a virtually 100 percent chance of inheriting that version. That mysterious cheat code is called a gene drive, and if scientists could engineer a synthetic gene drive, they could spread a desired trait through a population and down through generations. To eradicate rats on an island, you might push a gene for infertility that would cause a population to crash once it reached a certain prevalence—no poisons necessary. The rodents would simply fade away, like heirless lords.

Campbell invited himself for a visit to Gould’s lab in Raleigh. As you do, Gould turned to the internet to figure out who Campbell was. “I was just shocked,” Gould says. “If you look at the Island Conservation website it is all woodsy-greensy.” A lot of passionate environmentalists are opposed to genetic engineering. Gould asked Campbell, “Do you know what you are getting into?”

Campbell did. But he didn’t care that other conservationists considered genetic engineering too risky to attempt and too unnatural to countenance. He wanted to stop extinctions. Gould liked the man’s pragmatism.

Gould’s ideas were theoretical. But in 2012 the prospect of making the theoretical real suddenly got a lot better with the discovery of the Crispr technique, a new way to edit genes quickly, cheaply, and precisely. With Crispr, any DNA sequence could be precisely cut and pasted into any location in any genome.

Kevin Esvelt invented the synthetic gene drive—and then got worried about its potential power.

Guido Vitti

About two years later, Kevin Esvelt, a geneticist then at Harvard University, put gene drives and Crispr together. Instead of poking a big fat glass needle loaded up with synthetic DNA into every organism that you want to change, you do it once, with a gene drive that encodes not only the gene you want (or the deactivation of the gene you don’t want) but also instructions to do that same manipulation with the Crispr technique in another genome. So when your altered organism mates, its chromosome gets to work, engineering the chromosome inherited from the mate too. This guarantees that the offspring has the desired change, plus the instructions to make the desired change.

When the offspring reaches maturity and mates, the process repeats. In a perfect “global” gene drive, 100 percent of offspring have the gene drive carrying the desired trait.

The possibility was a tantalizing one for conservation. You could start thinking way bigger than Floreana: the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz, with its 12,000 people. Or, hell, Australia—Campbell’s home country, a massive island with dozens of species endangered largely because of introduced cats and foxes. You could fix every island in the world.

The idea of using gene drives to save species began to hum. Campbell helped organize people from Island Conservation and researchers in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture, to research the approach. The group formalized as the Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents program, or GBIRd. In June 2016, Paul Thomas, a mouse geneticist from the University of Adelaide, Australia, visited Gould in North Carolina and got fired up. Thomas felt that his lab could be the place to figure out how to make a synthetic gene drive work in rodents. If he could succeed in lab mice, he could succeed with the wild mice and rats that eat the eggs and young of rare species on islands. Thomas joined GBIRd.

When I visited Paul Thomas’ lab in Adelaide in August, I accompanied a grad student named Chandran Pfitzner to the mouse rooms. Before entering, we put on blue suits, hair nets, and masks. Pfitzner sprayed down my notebook with antiseptic and led me down a warm, hushed hallway to a room full of plexiglass mouse boxes on racks. The rooms were surprisingly quiet, almost muffled, with the merest undertone of animals burrowing and gnawing. The research mice were tiny and smelled like sweet sawdust and salt. Pfitzner, consulting his notes on the cracked screen of his phone, plucked one up by the tail, grabbed a tiny hole punch, and awkwardly excised a tiny circle of skin out of its ear. The mouse didn’t make a sound.

This mouse was created in another building on campus. There, a fertilized egg was pierced with a glass needle and injected with the necessary ingredients for overriding the random chance of inheritance: the molecular “scissors” used in Crispr engineering, a guiding molecule that tells it where to cut, and a promoter to activate the scissors in the right tissues (see “How to Kill Off a Species, Nicely”). In this case, the Crispr-­snipped gene was not for infertility but for coat color. The idea was to make the synthetic gene drive work first for a trait for which it is easy to check the results of at a glance. If the drive was working, the mouse would be albino. Instead, it was a rather lovely taupe. Pfitzner put the mouse back in the box.

After we left the mouse room and stripped off our protective gear, Pfitzner popped the little piece of ear skin under a microscope. He wanted to see if the elements of the gene drive were in place. The scientists also had inserted fluorescent proteins next to the “scissors” and other components, and the mouse flesh glowed with two colors, maraschino-cherry red and a neon green, under an inverted fluorescence microscope. All the pieces were there, but the taupe coat was proof that the elements weren’t functioning.

Out of 30 mice, Thomas and Pfitzner did get three dark-gray mice with patches and sprays of white, suggesting that the drive worked in some, but not all, of their cells. “It is early days,” Thomas said, gazing rather forlornly at a picture of a mosaic mouse that he printed out for me. Science is a long haul, but Thomas has no doubt his team will crack the code. It’s simply a matter of time. He expects the coat-color gene drive to function in the lab by about 2020, and one that could cause infertility shortly thereafter.

Thomas and some colleagues in applied math modeled how long it would take to eradicate an island mouse population of 50,000 by introducing just 100 mice engineered with an infertility gene drive. The answer was less than five years.

In the tiny ear-punched mouse, then, was the seed of an unprecedented possibility—that humans could not just change a few mice in an Australian lab but permanently alter all mice, everywhere. The 30-gram wriggler portends a kind of power over nature we’ve never had before: an ability to edit—or to delete—whole species.

This potential means that Thomas is taking special precautions. He understands that it could be perilous to the environment—and would certainly be perilous for public relations—should a mouse with a drive toward albinism or infertility escape its plexiglass box and start mating with the free mouse population. So the first thing he did was create a dedicated line of mice for these experiments. Thomas’ gene drive will only activate in the presence of a unique chunk of bacterial DNA that was engineered into the hole-punched mouse and its companions. That way, if one of these little mice slips out into the hills around Adelaide and mates with a house mouse, the gene drive won’t kick in.

Paul Thomas holds one of the lab mice engineered for his gene drive experiments.

Andrew Cowen

A new microscope in Thomas’ lab, which is trying to create a mouse that breeds itself into oblivion.

Andrew Cowen

About five minutes after Kevin Esvelt invented Crispr gene drives, he freaked out about them. The technology could do plenty of good by preventing the transmission of horrible diseases and controlling animal populations without any killing. But it could also—if used prematurely, greedily, or unilaterally­—drive species extinct and destroy public trust in science.

Cerebral, willowy Esvelt is now a professor at MIT and looks as much like an indoor person as Campbell looks like an outdoor one. When asked about the promise and peril of his intellectual creation, he brings up Boo, his rescue cat, who lost the tip of its ear to frostbite before being taken in. He envisions a future when a local gene drive could reduce feral cat populations, much in the way that Campbell wants to reduce rats on islands. “The thought of feral kittens freezing and starving to death is just viscerally painful for me,” he says.

Note that he uses the term “local” gene drive. One of his responses to his freak-out was to come up with ways of containing synthetic gene drives to a set number of generations. He calls one approach a “daisy chain,” which would add a sequence of genetic drivers that must be in place to propel the desired gene change. The first driver in the chain is inherited normally, so when it dies out, the gene drive does too. Tweaking the number of drivers in the chain could theoretically allow you to match the size of the population of creatures you want to get rid of on an island.

This daisy-chain method is still being tested in the lab, and Esvelt feels that, barring attempts to tackle global health crises like malaria, no one should try a gene drive in the wild until there is a proven local drive. This past November, Esvelt cowrote an essay in PLOS Biology in which he responded to New Zealand’s interest in using gene drives to eliminate introduced predators like rats, stoats, and Australian possums. He called the basic version of a gene drive unsuitable for conservation purposes and warned against its cavalier deployment. “Do we want a world in which countries and organizations routinely and unilaterally alter shared ecosystems regardless of the consequences to others?” he wrote.

Esvelt has the same concerns about GBIRd’s early and enthusiastic interest in exploring gene drive technology. GBIRd recently said that its members intend to pursue a “precision drive” approach, in which the drive would work only on animals with a specific genetic sequence—kind of like the fail-safe system Thomas is currently using in the lab, but relying on naturally occurring genes rather than introduced bacterial ones. Researchers would have to locate a DNA sequence found only on the target island and nowhere else, a prospect Esvelt thinks is unlikely. “There is a high chance it won’t work out and they are building up hope,” he says. On larger islands, there would be too many genes coming and going from other places for a perfect sequence.

Although Esvelt supports species conservation, he believes ethical priority must be given to preventing human and animal suffering. “The risk is that you could potentially cause a tragedy in the form of an accidental spread that would delay the introduction of a gene drive to stop malaria,” Esvelt says. “Sorry, I don’t care about endangered species that much.”

But he says he wants GBIRd to carry on—as openly and carefully as possible, and in consultation with the public—because he does care about the suffering of the invasive animals. The poisons that Island Conservation and other environmental groups typically use on rodents cause a horrible death. The rats bleed from internal organs and sometimes their eyes, nose, gums, and other orifices in the course of about six ­agony-filled days.

Esvelt himself is working on a project to disrupt the cycle of Lyme disease on Nantucket, Massachusetts. The people on the island objected to using a gene drive, so the current plan Esvelt helped develop would simply swamp the local Lyme-susceptible mice with up to 100,000 mice engineered to be Lyme and tick resistant. The hope is that the resistance genes will spread far enough in the population to make a difference. He is willing to let the community set the pace.

Three hundred twenty-five miles north of Thomas’ lab in Adelaide is a remote conservation research station called Arid Recovery, where another experiment to save endangered species is going on—this one with no lab mice at all. It is a forbidding landscape: 30,000 acres of red dunes dotted with tough, thorny scrub and divided into huge fenced enclosures stocked with Australian animals, most of which are on the verge of extinction because they are eaten by human-introduced cats and foxes.

It is so dry in the conservation area that everything left behind simply sits on the sand, seemingly forever, from dead wood to neatly knapped stone tools to the bones of a burrowing bettong (or boodie), something like a cat-sized kangaroo with a huge spherical rump. While the red sand outside the reserve shows prints of rabbits and cats, the dunes inside are inscribed with indigenous tracks: the long heart-shaped back feet of the boodie, the sideways V of the Western barred bandicoot, the distinctive toenail marks of the greater bilby.

Katherine Mosebey, an ecologist who cofounded the reserve, spent years getting rid of the foxes and cats from these fenced areas so the native animals could thrive. Now she is adding a few cats back into some of the swept-clean areas. The idea is to get the boodies and bilbies used to the cats, so that someday they can be released beyond the fence and not be instantly obliterated by predators they do not know how to fear.

The experiment has been running for just a few years, but already the bettongs that have to deal with cats are noticeably more wary. On a starry September night, I went out with the three scientists behind this project: Moseby; Mike Letnic, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney; and Daniel Blumstein, of UCLA. We drove in a Toyota HiLux, and Letnic pointed a bright hand-held spotlight out the window. In the 10-square-mile area with the cats, boodies scampered out of the way of the dusty pickup, their butts like furry bouncing balls. Letnic seemed worried that there were too many cats; the eyes of the feral felines shone in the spotlight, and the night seemed full of them. One agile tabby leaped over a saltbush, disappearing behind a dune. If too many cats reproduce in the enclosure, all the native species will be killed. If there aren’t enough, the natives won’t adapt. It is a delicate balance.

As we passed into the smaller cat-free zone, the boodies seemed noticeably more dim-witted. Several times the truck was forced to stop while someone got out and tried to herd them out of our way. Letnic ran at a couple who gazed at him with mild interest. As he approached, they began running companionably along with him, the man and marsupials looking like three friends out for a jog. In the end, Letnic had to nudge them off the road with the side of his foot. Outside the fence, they would be cat snacks by now.

The difference between these naive animals and the marginally more wary bettongs in the enclosure next door represents learning, but the team is also interested in using the cats as a kind of evolutionary filter. Smarter, faster, bigger, warier bettongs will survive the cats’ wiles and predations, and reproduce. Over the generations, they should become able to coexist with cats.

“It might take 100 years,” Moseby says.

Moseby is working with simple tools—cats, fences, radio collars, and traps—but she’s tentatively interested in the genetic tools on the horizon. A gene drive, if it works, could leapfrog 100 years of learning and evolution and death at the sharp end of a cat’s teeth.

Human-introduced predators have nearly driven the Floreana mockingbird to extinction.

Paula Castano/Island Conservation

Karl Campbell came to the Galapagos as an immigrant and found a home there. He married an Ecuadorian jewelry designer, and they have a daughter. Local people accept him, according to his old boss, Felipe Cruz, formerly deputy executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation. “People appreciate that he is not one of the passing-by experts.”

Yet his work there hasn’t been without its critics. There were all those dead hawks on Pinzón Island, for instance. Just a dozen of the birds nest there now. But Campbell points out that baby tortoises have been born—the first in more than 150 years—and he counts the effort on the plus side of the ledger. If a small percentage of native animals die, that’s fine with him, because that’s better than 100 percent going extinct.

Campbell insists that he and GBIRd are committed to being careful and deliberate. Pretty much voicing Esvelt’s exact fear, he says, “If you screw it up the first time around, you might put it back 30 years.” In the meantime, he waits and keeps poisoning things, hoping to stave off extinctions and make the islands safe for species that remain.

After visiting the farm on Floreana, Campbell and I had a beer on the beach, watching the sun set. From where we sat, we could see the grave, round heads of sea turtles as they popped above the waves to breathe. Down at the point, sea lions lolled on the sand and crimson Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled over jet-black lava rocks. The ocean was apricot and silver. Campbell told me that there used to be a crazy-­looking turtle genus on Vanuatu—“with a clubbed tail with spikes.” They all went extinct in the first few hundred years after people discovered the island, 3,000 years ago. Humans have been driving things to extinction for a long time. We know how to do that without even thinking. We have less practice dragging them back from the brink.

More on Gene Editing

Emma Marris, the author of Rambunctious Garden, writes about nature from Oregon.

This article appears in the March issue. Subscribe now.

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Want Awesome Robots? You’ll Have to Best These Challenges

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We are living in the midst of a profound technological restructuring of human society. The machines that once only frolicked in science fiction have begun to infiltrate our lives. If you don't already work alongside a robot, you may in the near future. Self-driving cars promise to transform our roads, and the first truly sophisticated robots have begun laboring in hospitals and construction sites and even Walmart.

But behind the autonomous revolution is a mountain of problems. Well, challenges, if you want to be more optimistic. To that end, a panel of roboticists have laid out the 10 biggest challenges for the field in the journal Science Robotics, challenges that touch on a fascinating array of fields. New motors from electrical engineers, new materials from the materials scientists, and even ethical guidelines from the social scientists. Where exactly the robot revolution is headed is unclear, but what’s certain is that it will impact a slew of scientific disciplines.

“We want to use this as the starting point for such a diverse field of research to bring people together to think different,” says lead author Guang-Zhong Yang, a roboticist at Imperial College London.

Yang et al.

Body of Work

Let’s start with the physical stuff, the hardware. The panel didn’t worry itself with the challenges of specific kinds of robots, like humanoids or collaborative robots. “This was done intentionally,” says Yang, “because we sometimes pay too much attention to embodiments rather than thinking more fundamentally how we can do differently, how we can learn from nature, how we can use new materials.”

Robots are still for the most part the stilted, unfeeling, kinda stuttering machines, largely because of the limitations of materials. But that’s beginning to change. For one, robots are getting cuddlier. In the aptly named field of soft robotics, engineers are developing squishy machines that, for instance, use the flow of oil to change shape. This could lead to robots that are far safer for humans to work with. First, though, engineers will have to overcome challenges like making sure soft robots can heal themselves if punctured. At the moment, one particular soft robotic hand can heal itself fine, but only when someone applies heat for 40 minutes. Ideally a robot would do this on its own at room temperature.

This is particularly important when taking inspiration from what nature has already proved works, known as biomimicry. If you want to replicate a human hand, for instance, you may want to develop a soft material that's gentle on real humans, yet can repair itself when damaged. And that's not even the half of it: The hand is a wildly complex instrument packed with muscles and tendons and tiny bones. How might roboticists replicate that to get robots to manipulate with the skill of humans? Well, copying the thing bit-for-bit probably isn't the answer. The challenge, then, is getting dexterity that rivals the human hand without all the intricacy.

Another good example of biomimicry is a robot named Cassie, which looks like a disembodied pair of bird legs. What’s interesting here is that Cassie’s creators never said, “Oh, bird legs, let’s replicate that.” They worked out what was mathematically most efficient, and that just so happens to look like bird legs. Still, though, the challenge for robots that replicate nature, especially humanoid machines, is also replicating the unparalleled energy efficiency of biological beings. And if you want to mimic something as small as an ant, good luck getting it to move with traditional motors, known as actuators, which tend to be super bulky.

One way around that problem could be thinking of robots less as one-off actors but parts of a distributed whole. Think tiny robots that work together to, say, construct complex structures. Or agricultural robots that collaborate to harvest. That means figuring out how to engineer machines that may be just a few millimeters long.

Back to School, Back to School, to Prove to Humans That I'm Not a Fool

Of course, building tiny interconnected bots also requires algorithms that can coordinate hundreds, if not thousands of machines—which brings us to the software side of the challenges for robotics. While AI is making great strides in the purely digital space, embodying AI is a whole different story.

For instance, an algorithm can quickly teach itself new skills like recognizing objects by trial and error, known as reinforcement learning. But try to make a robot teach itself something like how to complete a children’s puzzle, and the trial and error could take way longer than the rapid iteration allowed for in a purely virtual world. So going forward, the challenge will be getting robots to manipulate novel objects in the real world.

Robots have gotten a lot better at that, as sensors like lidar have become both more powerful and less expensive. Still, robots regularly fall into fountains and nearly run down dogs on sidewalks. So that bears improving.

And that's to say nothing about how the robots get along with humans. Perhaps the most fascinating challenges facing robotics have to do with how humans will interact with the machines, a field known as human-robot interaction. It seems straightforward—stay out of each other’s way, help a robot up if it falls over, etc.—but it gets tricky, fast. Last year, for instance, a security robot got into trouble for allegedly harassing homeless people in San Francisco.

On the other end of the spectrum, what kinds of bonds will we form with the machines, both emotionally and physically? What if manufacturers exploit these bonds to, say, convince children to buy ever-more-sophisticated robotic dolls? Can you truly love a robot if it is incapable of loving you back? Ethically speaking, the robotic future looks kinda confusing.

Surely, the majority of human-robot interactions will be more innocent, and indeed they’ll be the norm for many industries. Surgeons already work with robots like the da Vinci system, but in the future the challenge will be handing more and more responsibilities to the machines to do tedious tasks like stitching wounds. That means a truly delicate dance of human-robot interaction, a surgeon working right alongside machines without anyone getting in each other’s way.

Really, who isn’t going to be involved in robotics in the near future? “If you look at our 10 challenges,” says Yang, “you have materials from materials science, the power from electronic engineering, and the navigation control from computer science, hardware systems from biology.” Oh, and ethicists, and neuroscientists for the brain interfaces, and security folks to make sure your new humanoid robot doesn’t get hacked and go on a rampage. It’s shaping up to be a real family affair.

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The Genesis of Kuri, the Friendly Home Robot

Over the course of thousands of years, dogs have evolved alongside humans to be awesome. Unlike their wild ancestors, they don't gnaw on us (usually). They stick up for us. They go to the bathroom in designated areas. They're unrivaled companions. Looking at you disappointingly, cats.

Now, though, they have competition. The companion robots that science fiction has promised us for so long have finally hit the United States, and leading the way is an adorable little machine called Kuri. Made by Mayfield Robotics in Silicon Valley, Kuri—which starts shipping in December—will roll around your house and respond to your voice and recognize faces and take video of your dinner parties, if you're into that sort of thing.

Not exactly as useful as Rosie from The Jetsons, but hey, it's early days. And the design evolution of Kuri, from prototype to consumer product, provides a fascinating glimpse into a new era of interaction between humans and increasingly sophisticated machines. The question is: Do humans need or even want this kind of thing? And are we prepared to form a new kind of bond with what is essentially a new kind of being?

Kuri sprang from the minds of roboticists Kaijen Hsiao and Sarah Osentoski, who didn’t actually start out to make a friendly robot. What they originally conceived of was a security robot that would patrol the home. Not to taser intruders, but to keep an eye out. The problem, the pair eventually realized, is that you're better off detecting someone while they’re still outside. “By the time someone gets in the home, well it's kind of too late, isn't it?” Hsiao says.

A robot with fewer responsibilities seemed a more logical starting point. So Hsiao and Osentoski began building a bot for companionship, instead of protection. But this approach introduced a slew of subtle problems, chief among them: How do you get this new technology to work in the home, while also winning the affection of its owners?

First of all, Kuri has to be able to navigate the house without acting like an idiot. To avoid obstacles, it maps the world with lasers, just like a self-driving car. This is the sort of thing that’s really making machines like Kuri possible—sensors are getting cheaper at the same time that they’re getting more powerful. You don't have to drop $10K on lidar to get your robot to see its world.

Where the design gets subtler is in the look of Kuri. In these early days of personal robotics, it’s important for manufacturers to nonverbally telegraph what their machines are capable of—for safety, in some cases, but mostly to avoid disappointing the user. Do not, for instance, expect Kuri to drag you out of a burning building.

“We try, through her form, to really communicate exactly what Kuri's capable of,” says Osentoski. “She doesn't have arms because she's not going to be moving things around your home.”

Another consideration is how Kuri communicates. We humans tend to anthropomorphize anything that seems even remotely lifelike. Accordingly, Kuri’s designers decided that it shouldn’t speak human. “This is because when you have something that's talking to you that's driving around your house you start to expect a lot more,” says Osentoski. “You start to expect the intelligence of a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old.” Kuri just isn't there yet, mentally or physically, so users need to treat it as such.

At the same time, Mayfield Robotics wants Kuri to win your affection and become part of your family, and a lot of that comes down to the eyes. Watch any Pixar movie and you’ll notice how expressive the eyes are. Humans love eyes. So humans have to love Kuri’s peepers, which are actually mechanical. That limits their emotive potential compared to, say, just slapping a flatscreen on Kuri’s face, but they go a long way in telegraphing emotion for a robot that otherwise communicates with beeps and boops.

So, put it all together and you get an advanced, weirdly cute robot that’s quite remarkable to communicate with. It’s limited at the moment, sure, but as someone who’s interacted with Kuri, I can tell you that it conjures peculiar feelings. Rub its head and it looks up at you lovingly. I'm impressed by its apparent animalness, yet other times frustrated when it doesn't respond to my commands. I'm fully aware that it’s a machine meant to play with my emotions and expectations, but I don’t really care. In the end, I'm just not fully sure how to interact with it.

Whether humans are even ready for companion robots, though, remains to be seen. Think machines that strike up conversations with the elderly and even cuddle with them. “I don't believe in companion robots, I'm sorry,” says UC Berkeley roboticist Ken Goldberg. “I don't think that that's actually what people want. If I'm lonely, the last thing I want is a robot to come in and somehow be my friend. That's even more depressing.”

Whether Americans fall in love with it or not, Kuri is a technical milestone. And it will only get smarter from here. This is just the beginning of a new kind of relationship that humanity is beginning to form with robots, so prepare for a lot of awkward moments—and powerful ones, too. And bonus: Kuri will never chew up your slippers or assault your postal carrier.

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The Archaeologists Saving Miami’s History From the Sea

This story originally appeared on CityLab and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When Hurricane Irma sprinted toward Miami-Dade County, Jeff Ransom couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t just worried about gusts shattering windows, or sheets of rain drowning the highway—that’s far from unusual near his home in Broward County, where extreme weather verges on routine, and patches of U.S. 1 are regularly submerged.

Ransom, the county archaeologist, was preoccupied with an oak tree and its 350-year-old roots. If the tree capsized with enough intensity, he worried, the flailing roots could dislodge human remains.

On a blazing blue morning in early November, weeks after the storm, we trek to the site of the Tequesta Native American burial mound that kept Ransom awake.

“All night long, I was just thinking about that oak tree flipping over,” he says. “The big roots are growing right into the burial mound. That would’ve just blown human bone everywhere.”

Irma’s winds shaved canopies off the trees at the Deering Estate, a historic homestead that contains the burial mound and other fossil sites and is managed by the Miami-Dade County department of Parks, Recreation and Open Space. Under those bald branches, growth was rapid as vines and chutes—nourished by seaweed deposits—scrambled for sunlight. The result has been a second spring: bright, young leaves, greedy for purchase among the gumbo-limbo and strangler figs. Ransom knocks a path for us with a machete, which he carries slung in a holster. Two thwacks splinter the Brazilian pepper branches—but that’s only because the machete is dull, he tells me. Usually, a single smack is enough to slice straight through, like butter.

Jeff Ransom, the county archaeologist, keeps close tabs on sites that could be susceptible to rising water.
Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab

Ransom is 52, with a GI Joe jawbone and black aviator sunglasses. At one point, these vanish into the carpet of leaf litter, gone shaggier since the storm, and Ransom spends a few minutes poking around for them beneath the slashed fronds before remembering that he has a nearly identical backup pair.

The burial ground was—is—fine. The oak’s trunk is sturdy and thick; the roots are sunk deep into the soil. We sit for a moment on benches nearby, guzzling water in the shade while Ransom uses his machete’s blunted edge to scrape burrs off his pants and shoes.

The storm didn’t bear down on the city with all its might: In general, Southeast Florida was spared the breadth of damage that forecasters had conjured. A half-mile of mangroves buffered the Cutler Midden, another archeological site on the Deering Estate, against damage wrought by crashing waves. Ancient shell tools and pottery fragments survived intact.

Irma could have bitten harder. But in isolated pockets, the storm was ravenous. We pass fragments of a historic boardwalk, which the archaeologists had laboriously documented and annotated. The structure “had been chunked up” in the storm, explains Mallory Fenn, the public archaeology coordinator at the Southeast/Southwest Florida branch of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. The network is a project of the University of West Florida; the Southeast/Southwest division operates out of Florida Atlantic University.

Fenn’s earrings are made from gator teeth, and the boardwalk looks masticated and spit out, its component parts hardly visible. An orange-and-white barrier marches across the crumpled walkway, as if it wasn’t patently clear that there’s trouble ahead.

Before I fly down to Miami to trail her and Ransom through the swamp, Sara Ayers-Rigsby sends me a packing list. Ayers-Rigsby is the Southeast/Southwest regional director of FPAN, and the trunk of her car is stocked with supplies, from bug netting to single-serving bags of pretzels. She’ll have ample bug spray and sunscreen to share, she writes, but I’ll want to wear long sleeves on my arms and legs, and the most waterproof boots I’ve got. We’ll be wading into the height of the king tides; the water might rise up to our knees. Heat and mugginess can have a scrambling effect. Ayers-Rigsby later describes it as “brain-meltingly hot.”

“The weather in south Florida is inhospitable,” she warns.

Writ broadly, that’s precisely the problem. Numerous projections forecast a future of extreme weather and persistent flooding that is incompatible with many elements of life as it’s known on the peninsula. Of all of the U.S. states, Florida is the most vulnerable to sea-level rise, and Miami-Dade is at particular risk.

As the plane drifts toward descent, water is everywhere: in green-blue pools that reach for the horizon, in mud-colored eddies, in staid intercoastals studded with white yachts. From the air, many of these basins look overfull, ready to spill with the slightest topoff.

Sooner or later, the water will swallow the shoreline. When it comes to the magnitude, severity, and timetable, there are shades and gradations of apocalyptic hues. In 2015, a working group comprised of officials from across Southeast Florida set out to get on the same page about the threats and to strategize about mitigation efforts. Their projection draws from local tide measurements and is aligned with estimates from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). By 2030, they anticipate a sea-level rise of 6 to 10 inches from a 1992 baseline; they predict a rise of up to 26 inches by 2060, and 61 inches by 2100.

Even if the water doesn’t crawl quite that high, damage could still be widespread and devastating. Twenty-five percent of land in Miami-Dade County sits less than three feet above current sea level, according to the World Resources Institute. Ten percent is less than a foot away from being flush with the sea.

And if water does splash to the maximum level, the results could be cataclysmic. In a recent report, the real estate company Zillow estimated that, if the sea level were to rise by six feet, 24 percent of Miami’s housing stock would be drenched.

“You can’t wrap an archeological site in bubble wrap and put it on a high shelf.”

Troublingly for Ransom and Ayers-Rigsby, a sea-level rise of just half that height could destroy as many as 16,095 archaeological sites across the state. As the terrain goes soggier or washes away, how do you protect objects embedded in it?

“You can’t wrap an archeological site in bubble wrap and put it on a high shelf,” Ayers-Rigsby told me via phone soon before Irma swept past. Some sites can be stabilized or buffered with mangroves or oyster beds, but when it comes to safeguarding them from pummeling rain or surging waves of a hurricane-strength storm, options are limited. “Other than building a massive construction around it,” Ayers-Rigsby said, “there’s not that much you can do.”

Among officials in Miami-Dade, “there’s no sugar coating or backtracking” about the threat of climate change, Ransom tells me. Its consequences play out in real time, in flooded streets and waterlogged basements, and voters throw their weight behind mitigation efforts at the polls. After his landslide victory in this month’s elections, the incoming City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told the local ABC affiliate that “Miami should be and must be the most resilient city in the world.” That same day, voters approved a bond measure that directed $192 million to pumps, walls, drains, and other projects to keep the city drier. Meanwhile, Ransom, Ayers-Rigsby, and their colleagues work to keep thousands of years of history from being lost to the sea.

If you wonder what archaeology Florida can boast of, you’d hardly be the first. In a carpool from the airport, I told two Australian businessmen what had brought me to the city. They cocked their heads. Miami, to them, evoked beaches, surgically altered bodies, and hefty Cuban sandwiches. What else was there?

I recount this to Ayers-Rigsby while we sit on a choked concrete freeway, inching from Fort Lauderdale to Biscayne Bay. She groans and slumps her head toward the steering wheel. Ayers-Rigsby, 34, relocated to Florida from the Mid-Atlantic, and is now somewhat evangelical about the region’s overlooked merits. Around her neck, she wears a pendant with the state’s silhouette.

Ayers-Rigsby measuring the water level at a midden.
Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab

For as long as people and creatures have inhabited present-day Florida, they’ve been shedding traces of their lives. Fenn says the flitting snowbirds and rotating crop of transplants can be afflicted with a virulent case of historical amnesia. But the scattered sites testify to millennia before the shores were dotted with high-rises fashioned from glass and steel.

The Cutler Fossil is a watering hole into which all manner of Pleistocene beasts toppled. Sandwiched between the limestone layers of the sinkhole, some 16 feet above the current sea level of the nearby Biscayne Bay, were bones of dire wolfs, mastodons, camels, llamas, saber-toothed tigers, and the American lion. Though the site is protected, the city has sprawled around it in the intervening 10,000 years. Looking down into the ancient pit from the ridge, you can hear the rumble of nearby cars. But the site is hidden and sheltered from the road and the water, protected by its isolation and its elevation.

The south portion of the Deering Estate contains prehistoric fossil sites.
Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab

Other sites sit more uneasily with the present. In the late 1990s, archaeologists discovered a circle of post holes cut into the limestone bedrock at the mouth of the Miami River. Carbon dating of wood fragments helped identify the site as the home of a structure built nearly 2,000 years ago by the Tequesta Indians. “People have been partying in Miami for thousands of years,” Fenn jokes, as she shows me around the site. Archaeologists, Native activists, and a galvanized public sparred with a developer, who had purchased the property as the future site of luxury condos. (A flurry of controversy swirled at the time, when some scholars wondered whether the pattern was, more simply, the drain site for a septic system. Archaeology magazine solicited input from other archaeologists, scholars, and a master septic tank contractor, the latter of whom summarily dismissed the possibility.)

The Miami Circle was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009. Today, the site is a grassy expanse shaded by towering condos and hotels that have sprung up around it, overlooking cruise ships and cargo freight lumbering in the distance. It’s a rare green space in a vertiginous corner of the city—and that means it sometimes becomes a place for dogs to lift their legs. A fluffy white dog squats nearby as Fenn describes working on an archaeological site just across the narrow river, where archaeologists unearthed additional Tequesta artifacts in 2014 in the prospective footprint of a massive mixed-use development. These excavations are a trippy mash-up of the ancient and the dizzyingly modern. “When you look down, you think it’s the 1850s, with a sifter and a trowel,” she says. “Then you look up and see skyscrapers, and the Metromover going by.”

During Irma, water breached the walls just below the Miami Circle site. It rushed onto the grass, carrying palm fronds washed in from the river. Fenn, who lives nearby, “ran out pretty much the second we were allowed to be outside” to check in on it. The water soon receded, leaving no apparent damage. This particular spot, loaded with infill, has been shored up to withstand exactly this type of barrage.

Other sites, which lack these preventive measures, are more vulnerable. But studying them can reveal important data about the rising sea—and how long scholars have to hatch a plan.

Ransom and Ayers-Rigsby pick through a dense thicket and a floor carpeted with spiky bromeliads. They know what they’re looking for—orange-capped rebar that they sunk into the bank of the Oleta River—but Irma blew down the trees onto which they’d tied yellow ribbon to help them identify the sites at a distance. Those orange markers have been coated with dirt.

This squishy portion of the riverbank is the site of a prehistoric midden, containing traces of shell tools, pottery, and other daily items that would have been used by Native American tribes who lived on the shore.

“If any site is going to erode, it’s going to be this one,” Ransom says, sloshing through the muck.

The midden, or ancient trash heap, is nearly flush with the water level, which makes this site an ideal candidate for tracking inundation and water rise before and after storm events and king tides. By obtaining a baseline measurement and a set of comparisons, the archaeologists can document both accumulation and erosion—noting which events seem to pile more sediment on the top of the site, and which strip it, ultimately threatening to haul the artifacts out to sea.

The notion of using this area as a proxy for fluctuations in the water level dates back decades. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when he was working as the country archeologist, Robert Carr found evidence of ancient charcoal buried about two feet below the surface. Since a fire needs to be dry, Carr reasoned that that portion of the site was once above water. At the time, climate change “certainly wasn’t on anybody’s radar” in the archaeology community, he tells me via phone. There was “no particular movement or focus going on.” Carr advocated for using soil inundation, radiocarbon dating, and water levels as firm evidence for past and future variations. His work laid the foundation for what Ransom and Ayers-Rigby are doing.

On a recent afternoon, the mangrove roots are flecked with odd pieces of very modern garbage: foggy glass bottles, a boogie board speckled with barnacles, a black DVD case, a wrinkled bag of Ruffles chips. These aren’t the signs of someone sneaking in to use the forest as a dump, Ayers-Rigsby says—the refuse has been carried in on waves.

Distinctively modern trash is a hallmark of water inundating the shore.
Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab

She and Ransom slog through the sucking mud, brushing biting ants from their backs and shoulders, to measure the distance from the rebar to the water line. They jot down the measurements in a yellow notebook, its pages warped by wetness. In some spots, the sediment is piled higher than it was the last time they measured, before Irma blew in. That accumulation suggests that the water level breached a good chunk of the shoreline during the storm, Ransom says.

Carr explains that’s not unequivocally dangerous—there’s not yet sufficient clarity about whether inundation is an impediment to preserving sites in the same way that erosion is. Conceivably, he says, a site “could be better preserved underwater than it is above ground, if sea-level rise is gradual, not a result of pounding waves hitting shoreline and tearing up and removing soils.”

Through her work at FPAN, Ayers-Rigsby has also helped recruit a team of citizen scientists to fan out across the state and conduct regular monitoring of at-risk sites. Inspired by a U.K. program, Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk, the Heritage Monitoring Scouts, a brigade more than 200 people strong, survey publicly accessible sites—not the more sensitive ones, like unmarked burial grounds—and upload their impressions onto a website form. They look out for signs of flooding, erosion, or wave action, or any artifacts that may have been dredged to the surface, and flag any places that need urgent attention.

Sixty-two-year-old volunteer Paula Streeter surveys the shell midden on Calusa Island, a dot of land off the state’s southwest coast once inhabited by Calusa Indians. Streeter has a wide-ranging background—her resume includes “a zillion, million, trillion things,” she tells me via phone. Since retiring from the city clerk’s office, she’s begun assisting archaeologists. “I only started this,” she says via phone. “It was the most amazing thing in my life, and it only happened two years ago.”

Already, the Calusa shoreline is being eaten by waves and wind action, Streeter says. Artifacts are surfacing in the midden, relics of the tribe’s use of shells for tools and weapons—but the average beachgoer might not notice them. “If you’ve been trained, you know that’s an ancient form of a hammer made from a whelk shell or a horse conch,” Streeter says.

Paula Streeter volunteers with the Heritage Monitoring Scouts, a program to keep tabs on Florida’s at-risk archaeological sites.
Courtesy of Paula Streeter

The Calusa Island site is only accessible via boat or kayak—“you can’t just zip out there,” Streeter says. Before the recent hurricanes and king tides, the team intended to survey once a month. (The site is also monitored by researchers from the University of Florida.) When toppled trees exposed these artifacts, the team upped the frequency to once per week—and instead of leaving all of the artifacts in situ, the volunteers diagram the original locations and bag some of them, so they’re not tugged out to sea. Heritage Monitoring Scouts use rebar installations to measure the distance from the midden edge to the beach. Even without their precise computations, it’s easy to see the effect of the waves and wind in exposed roots and a dramatically angled ledge of sand.

Some of these sites contain clues to enriching or correcting the historical record. One example is the dwindling island of Egmont Key, off of the Tampa coast.

A few years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reached out to the Seminole to ask about the dwindling island. It was eroding heavily—shrunk to 280 acres, half its size—and they were wondering whether to replenish it with sand. Was the tribe interested in preserving it?

“This history is a hidden history—it’s not one that’s in any of the textbooks.”

The imminent threat to the land mass was the impetus to uncover the site’s history. With his colleagues, Dr. Paul Backhouse, the director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, pursued some research and learned that, during skirmishes with the U.S. Army in the mid-1800s, the island functioned as a detainment site for Seminoles who were caught evading the ships deployed to remove them out west. Judging by contemporary accounts, conditions were grim: There were no sources of fresh water, and the captives were trapped.

The island sits no more than six feet above sea level. Did the tribe want to keep it above the waves? Among the Seminole community, “the overwhelming response was yes,” Backhouse says via phone. Archaeologically, there was much to learn from the site and the 19th-century artifacts that accumulated there—but it could also function as a place of catharsis and education. “Youth can come and remember the struggle their ancestors went through to remain in Florida,” Backhouse says. “This history is a hidden history—it’s not one that’s in any of the textbooks, because it’s an embarrassment to normal American history.”

Egmont Key is on the front lines. With enough elevation or distance from foot traffic, many other sites will be safe for a relatively long time, by virtue of staying dry or hidden. But as the sea creeps higher, choices will have to be made.

This fall has been an expensive one at the Deering Estate. Hurricane Irma and the October king tides packed a double-punch, explains Jennifer Tisthammer, the estate’s director.

During that first king tide, storm surge swamped the service road with ankle-deep water and flooded the back lawn, where many of the estate’s special events take place. Irma’s gales ripped off 80 percent of the tree canopy; 6,000 cubic yards of seaweed washed ashore. Tisthammer’s long-term vision is to raise the back lawn—but in the meantime, the staff looked for prophylactic measures to mitigate the aesthetics and promote drainage. Sod is best, Tisthammer says, but white rock looks better than soggy, brown grass. When the staff spread out truckloads of drain rock and sand, the puddles that had been taking weeks to drain were siphoned off within a few days.

Biscayne Bay often splashes up onto the land of the Deering Estate.
Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab

Even if the fully-underwater-future is far off on the horizon, the king tides offer a regular reminder—and a kind of trial run. On a page devoted to king tides and climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency notes, “Sea level rise will make today’s king tides become the future’s everyday tides.”

Places like the Deering Estate are already factoring preventative and adaptive strategies into line items on the budget. “You’re gonna have some loss,” Tisthammer says. “Do you put $3 million into something you know will eventually go under, or allocate it differently?”

The kind of data that Ayers-Rigsby and Ransom are collecting can be used to inform broader city planning and budgeting—and this December, Miami-Dade and three surrounding counties are taking archeological sites into account, adding provisions to the updated action plan from the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. The document isn’t binding, but it encourages local officials to work with historic preservation specialists to map and rank at-risk sites; to appeal to FEMA, local emergency management offices, and other agencies for financial resources; and to implement sustainable preservation tactics such as planting mangroves and cordgrass, or “hard armoring” sites with rocks or concrete. These strategies aren’t without drawbacks. “Hard methods may negatively impact sites by the weight and shifting of large rocks, not to mention the cost of acquiring and moving these to remote places,” Ransom says.

The solution is also not as simple as plucking artifacts from the ground and shuttling them to museum collections, where they might be preserved behind plexiglass vitrines. For the Seminole tribe, as for many other indigenous groups, Backhouse says the prevailing philosophy is that items discarded over the centuries should be left in place. He acknowledges that this mantra of noting objects, “working around them, planning around them, and not thinking of those objects as just research vehicles” might “go completely against the grain of what most people think archaeology is.” But Ayers-Rigsby and Ransom likewise consider excavation to be something of a last resort.

In the Seminole culture, Backhouse says, there’s a difference between something being upturned by an earthquake, versus pulled to the surface by human hands. The underlying philosophy is seeking harmony and balance with nature, he says—and “indigenous cultures don’t have an idea that nature’s always nice.”

Last spring, my colleague Linda Poon reported that the vast majority of states lacked any mention of historic resources in their disaster management plans. Up until this point, that’s been the case in Miami-Dade, says Ayers-Rigsby. “One of the reasons I was so happy we had some language put into the draft of the climate action fund was just to get it on people’s radar,” she adds. “Before, it was not even included at all at any level.” There’s momentum in this direction: Earlier this fall, the city of Annapolis, Maryland, hosted a conference called “Keeping History Above Water,” dedicated to solutions for historic preservation and cultural resources. In August, Backhouse and the Seminole tribe participated in the Tidally United Summit, co-sponsored with FPAN and the Florida International University Global Indigenous Forum, which focused on the relationship between climate science and historic resources.

Meanwhile, Ayers-Rigsby is sensitive to the emergent, unfolding toll that storms and flooding can wreak on people and property. “You have to put the human aspect in the present first,” she says. “You have to prioritize people’s safety and people’s livelihoods. Archaeology and historic resources are obviously necessarily secondary to that, but they should still be discussed.”

It’s painful enough to put a pricetag on property—homes, cars, neighborhoods—that we will lose in the reckoning with the waves. And it can be an uphill battle to nudge residents and officials toward the level of abstraction required to dwell in the realm of forecasts and best guesses. “A risk in the future feels a lot less scary than a risk that’s presented right now,” the risk-perception expert David Ropeik told my colleague Laura Bliss in 2015. Even in Florida, where volatile weather is undeniable, it requires a few metal acrobatics to tumble toward an understanding of the sites that are at stake—sometimes literally below the surface.

But if the goal of archaeology is to preserve and interpret the past for the future, there’s plenty of work to be done—careful and quick, down in the muck and in legislative offices—before traces of that past slip away. In those strata are testaments to lives lived, forgotten, and remembered over the course of millennia: a record of what it has meant to be human.

No matter what they do, Ayers-Rigsby says, the time capsule will be incomplete. “Some things will be lost forever.”

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