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August 25, 2020

Using Geoinformatics to Document Heritage at Risk and Climate Change at Egmont Key
by Dr. Laura K. Harrison, Director, Access 3D Lab, College of Arts & Sciences and
Dr. Brooke Hansen, Director of Sustainable Tourism, Patel College of Global Sustainability

Egmont Key: A Unique Heritage at Risk Site in Tampa Bay

Egmont Key, the outermost barrier island in Tampa Bay, has been rapidly vanishing from the forces of anthropogenic activity and climate change. In the past 150 years, about half of the island has eroded into the sea leaving the current land area at 2 square kilometers.  With the loss of land comes the disappearance of an important habitat for thousands of nesting shorebirds and the destruction of irreplaceable cultural heritage sites that attest to Tampa Bay’s rich history. Intensified geoinformatics efforts, specifically laser scanning and GIS modeling, are needed to document and preserve these histories. The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the importance of virtual accessibility to heritage sites and sustainability monitoring at a time when social distancing and remote learning are more important than ever.

Egmont Key histoic lighthouse, credit: Dr. Mel Rodgers

Fig. 1: Aerial view of Egmont Key’s historic lighthouse, built in 1858. Credit: Dr. Mel Rodgers.

Egmont Key’s history spans thousands of years, encompassing events such as early mapping of the island by Spanish explorer Don Francisco Maria Celi (1757), the little-known incarceration of Seminole people during the Indian Removal period (1856-1858), Clara Barton’s visit to the makeshift Yellow Fever Quarantine Camp (1898), and the militarization of the island during the Spanish American War (1898-1912). Intense erosion, compounded by sea level rise, storms, and the dredging of the Egmont Channel for commercial shipping into Tampa, threaten to erase these valuable histories and many others. In 2018, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation named Egmont Key one of the most endangered sites in the state of Florida. Egmont Key is now a state park hosting thousands of visitors per year, most of whom learn little of the island’s hidden histories or endangered status.

Monitoring Climate Change and Creating Inclusive Histories for Visitor Interpretation

Digital heritage is an interdisciplinary field that utilizes digital tools to explore legacies from the past in ways that resonate with present and future generations. Techniques such as 3D scanning and virtual reality heighten the accessibility of heritage places and provide an inclusive and multivocal platform for digital storytelling. There is a common saying that if we are not telling all histories, it’s not US history. That is one of the guiding principles behind the digital heritage research at Egmont Key, especially in light of the little-known fact that the island functioned as a concentration camp for Seminole people at the end of the Indian Removal period.

Digital tools are effective in addressing imminent changes to landscapes from many sources, including global climate change, that leave heritage at risk. This situation is acutely affecting Florida already with thousands of cultural sites facing destruction due to sea level rise, and many more sites already underwater. This has prompted the formation of CHART (the Coastal Heritage at Risk Task Force) in 2018 and the Florida Public Archaeology Network’s Heritage Monitoring Scouts (HMS) program, where trained professionals and volunteers assess and monitor changes to sites. Efforts such as these to preserve, protect and share information about Florida’s disappearing heritage are increasingly making use of geoinformatics technologies and digital heritage research to evaluate the ongoing risks. 

Fig. 2: Cutaway of 3D point cloud of Egmont Key lighthouse, showing interior space that is closed to visitors. Credit: Access 3D Lab.

Fig. 2: Cutaway of 3D point cloud of Egmont Key lighthouse, showing interior space that is closed to visitors. Credit: Access 3D Lab.

There is a pressing need to document the remaining cultural heritage and ecological habitats on Egmont Key and uncover the hidden histories of the many significant episodes of cultural occupation before they are lost forever. The USF team’s research efforts utilize digital technologies such as 3D laser scanning, photogrammetry, and virtual reality in conjunction with more traditional forms of archival research, oral histories and interviews with descendant communities.

A USF graduate field school class called Applied Heritage and Sustainability Research engaged in transdisciplinary geoinformatics research into Egmont Key’s culture and environment. This collaborative project brought together USF faculty from the Patel College of Global Sustainability and the College of Arts and Sciences with USF students and members of the community to document endangered structures, measure shoreline attrition and habitat loss, and give voice to the many untold histories Egmont Key’s past. The digital products of this research include 3D point clouds of the lighthouse, the cemetery, Battery Charles Mellon, and the likely site of the Seminole incarceration. Steven Fernandez (USF School of Public Affairs) worked with students to create a GIS map that shows transformations in the coastline from 2007 to 2015 and the impacts of beach renourishment.

Egmont Key digita elevation model comparison from 2007 to 2015, credit: Steve Fernandez

Incorporating the SDGs into Digital Heritage at Risk Projects

The collaborative research at Egmont Key to document, preserve and provide inclusive interpretation fits squarely within UNESCO’s World Heritage and Sustainable Development Programme and other United Nations platforms, specifically the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN SDGs developed in 2015 have been widely adopted and include provisions to conserve and promote cultural heritage. SDG 11’s Sustainable Cities and Communities target 11.4 aims to strengthen efforts to safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage. When coupled with SDG 8.9 that promotes sustainable tourism through local culture, the application of digital heritage products becomes an integrative tool to fulfil both of these SDGs in the Egmont Key project. In collaboration with the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation office, the intangible cultural heritage of the Seminole incarceration can be told through their lenses in the interpretive products being developed in the Egmont Key project (a short history was recently published by the Seminole Tribe of Florida

Future Directions

The next steps in the Egmont Key project include the full development and implementation of a Florida Humanities Council funded digital touchscreen exhibit that brings Egmont Key’s many histories to life in a digital storytelling framework, including the Seminole incarceration. Another project funded by the USF Creative Research and Scholarship Grant centers on the development of a pop-up virtual reality experience that provides an immersive, 3D tour of the lighthouse as well as an introduction to concepts of sustainability and heritage management. Our goal is to scale up these pilot projects for full implementation in educational and tourism venues throughout Florida and beyond. These efforts will continue to engage multiple communities and organizations, such as the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office and the Florida Public Archaeology Network’s HMS program, to fully represent the diverse histories at Egmont Key and monitor the environmental threats that the island faces.