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USA - Climate change poses increasing threat for dead as cemeteries flood

A delicate hand points heavenward on the carved headstone marking the grave of Sarah Ewen Stewart, “at rest” in her scenic island location on Florida’s Gulf Coast for more than 145 years.

The stone, tilted over time in the Cedar Key Cemetery, shows Sarah was born in 1809, at the dawn of the 19th century, when a flurry of inventions were about to launch the world’s industrial revolution. The first steam locomotive was patented in the U.S. the year she was born.

No one was talking about carbon dioxide or its role in warming the Earth’s atmosphere. And for much of Sarah’s life, carbon dioxide levels remained flat, historical reconstructions show.  


“My father was a big fan of the water all his life,” she said. “I knew he’d want to be in the water.”

Carbon dioxide levels have soared since her father was buried, increasing by around 27%, and it shows in the Gulf of Mexico’s encroachment into this tiny island community.

High tide flooding happens 4-7 times more often in the island community than it used to, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Already, sections of the cemetery go underwater during big tropical storms and hurricanes, and it’s only forecast to grow worse.

The grave situation at cemeteries amid climate change

But when she was laid to rest in 1878, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were already creeping higher and sea levels were rising. Scientists had begun to study the notion that carbon dioxide, together with water vapor, creates a greenhouse effect around the globe.

Just over a century later, John Kuszyna was buried in the same tree-shaded cemetery, in a world beginning to understand the growing effects of a century of spewing carbon dioxide emissions into the air. Across the nation from this tree-shaded spot, on the side of a volcano in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, a monitor showed CO2 had risen nearly 12% over his lifetime.

Today, Kuszyna’s daughter, Sue Colson, a Cedar Key city commissioner, knows climate change is coming for her parents. John and Clair Kuszyna rest side-by-side in a section of the cemetery most vulnerable to the rising sea levels. Colson planned it that way.

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