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Scientists Race to Document Puerto Rico’s Coastal Heritage

2019-12-16

A group of scientists is hurrying to document ancient ruins on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. The sites, along Puerto Rico’s coast, date back a few thousand years. The scientists are working as fast as they can before rising sea levels destroy a large part of the island’s history.

In this photo combo provided by Eric Lo, shows the shoreline in Manati, on Aug. 2017, left, before hurricane Maria and on Nov. 2017, after Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico. (Eric Lo via AP)
In this photo combo provided by Eric Lo, shows the shoreline in Manati, on Aug. 2017, left, before hurricane Maria and on Nov. 2017, after Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico. (Eric Lo via AP)

Scientists hope to use the three-dimensional (3D) images they have taken to help identify which sites are most at-risk to natural disasters and other dangers.

Falko Kuester is director of the Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative at the University of California, San Diego. He said, “A big part of what we’re working on is to make the invisible visible and make sure it stays in our memory.”

The university, known as UCSD, is involved in the research project. Also involved are its Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Para la Naturaleza, an environmental group based in Puerto Rico.

The work started in August 2017. Scientists first explored a large stretch of land along Puerto Rico’s north coast. That area includes a ceremonial center used by the Taino Indians about 2,000 years ago, said Isabel Rivera Collazo.

Rivera is an environmental archaeologist at UCSD and directing the project. She said the scientists found what appears to be a large settlement just east of the ceremonial site. It was discovered with help from drone aircraft and other technology, including 3D images. She added that scientists were also able to map out the shape of the ceremonial site.

The Tainos once lived on many islands in the Caribbean Sea. But after the arrival of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans, the indigenous people were nearly all killed.

Rivera said, “Up to today, there is still a lot we don’t know about indigenous culture along our coasts. It’s not in our history books…we want to recover that information before it disappears.”

Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources has said the sea level around the island is rising by more than 3 millimeters every year. However, climate change has more immediate effects. These include the destruction of the island’s coastline and natural habitats.

Some scientists say that warmer temperatures in the Caribbean increase the number and strength of storms. Puerto Rico faces the possibility of storms every year for six months during the Atlantic hurricane season. Scientists noted that large amounts of water caused by Hurricane Maria washed away part of the area they are studying.

Eric Lo is an engineer with UCSD’s cultural heritage initiative. He flew to Puerto Rico in August 2017 to launch the project one month before Maria struck the island. Lo was surprised at what he saw when he returned to the U.S. territory months later.

He said, “Pieces of land where I had stood and flown the drone didn’t exist anymore. They were underwater.”

Scientists are now trying to find out how badly the hurricane and loss of land have affected the archaeological site they are studying.

The scientists are using 3-D models based on drone images to measure areas and explore other details.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Danica Coto reported this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

habitat – n. the place or type of place where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives or grows

indigenous – adj. produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment

initiative – n. a plan or program that is intended to solve a problem

invisible – adj. impossible to see; not visible

three-dimensional – adj. having or seeming to have length, width, and depth