Staff evacuated Belize's Half Moon Caye Natural Monument in September 2010 as Tropical Storm Matthew closed in. When they returned on Sept. 30, they found the island's 190-year-old lighthouse had fallen into a heap of rubble at the edge of the sea. Since the lighthouse had been taken out of use in 1997, erosion had moved the water closer and closer to it. The storm was the last blow.
A similar fate threatens lighthouses around the world. People have built lighthouses since the ancient Egyptians erected one on the island of Pharos at Alexandria around 285 B.C. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that lighthouse is gone, probably toppled by an earthquake.
The first lighthouse in the United States, in Massachusetts' Boston Harbor, went up in 1716. The British destroyed it 60 years later during the American Revolution.
Lighthouses have been made of wood, stone, concrete, brick, cast iron and steel. Some include living quarters for the keepers. However, GPS, radio and other modern communications have rendered most of the world's lighthouses obsolete. Those still in use have been automated; many have been decommissioned.
When a lighthouse is deemed unnecessary, the agency responsible for it often can't justify money for upkeep. Most lighthouses fall victim to neglect and erosion related to the sea and weather. Sometimes, people realize their value and try to preserve them. Often, as in the case of Half Moon Caye, they're too late.
This list of endangered lighthouses, drawn up with the guidance of Russ Rowlett of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, includes 10 that are seriously threatened, but could be saved with prompt action.
In the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of South Carolina, two abandoned lighthouses stand on an island once known as Raccoon Key. They warned mariners about a dangerous shoal. The newer one figured in the Civil War, when Confederates put out the light so that the Yankees would have trouble navigating the waters.
The newer one, a black-and-white structure first lit in 1858, is in fairly good condition even though it hasn't been used for more than 60 years. In the 1940s, a lack of ship traffic in the area convinced officials that lighted buoys offshore would do the job instead.
The condition of the older lighthouse -- dating to 1827 -- is rapidly deteriorating. A classic, red brick, cone-shaped lighthouse, it's lost its interior staircase and other wooden parts.
Unlike most lighthouses, erosion isn't the problem here. The lighthouse doesn't need to be moved. It just needs a considerable investment of money and work before it falls apart. Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's budget doesn't include money for lighthouse repairs.
Next, let's look north to a lighthouse in Canada.
You can blame lightning -- not the sea -- for the destruction of the Nottawasaga lighthouse at Collingwood, Ontario, on the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. A beautiful, white-painted, round limestone tower 97 feet (29 meters) high, the light is one of the six "Imperial Towers" along Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
The problem is that it was built in 1858 without a lightning rod, and lightning strikes over the years have taken their toll. The outer wall is cracked in many places. Large chunks have fallen off. Moisture gets between the outer and inner walls, causing more damage. When lightning strikes, the moisture is heated, and steam causes yet more destruction.
The Canadian Coast Guard runs the lighthouse and has closed it for safety reasons. A local group, Friends of Nottawasaga Lighthouse, hopes to preserve it. The town is small, the area is remote, and prospects for raising the $4.5 million that experts say it would cost to fully restore it are daunting. Some work has been done, and the lighthouse is now grounded to stave off further lightning damage.
The only way to save this endangered lighthouse is to move it. This 98-foot (30-meter) high round brick lighthouse has stood on a small island on Suffolk's North Sea since 1792. In late 2010, its light is still in use. But the sea has been eroding the place where the lighthouse stands, and if it's not moved soon, it will fall.
Britain's National Trust operates the remote area as a nature reserve and historic site. Trinity House, which has been responsible for shipping and seafarers' safety since the days of Henry VIII, has announced that the lighthouse will crumble within a few years and will be abandoned. There have been protests against this decision, but no one seems to have the money to move the lighthouse.
The lighthouse has withstood raids by pirates, storms and enemy attacks, but if something isn't done soon, it will fall victim to the sea.
Italy's Tremiti Islands in the Adriatic Sea get their name because of the frequent minor earthquakes there. "Tremiti" is Italian for "trembling." Unlike many endangered lighthouses, the one on the Isola de Capraia isn't in trouble because erosion is about to topple it into the sea. This lighthouse's problem is that it's falling to pieces from being shaken.
Built in 1868, the Capraia lighthouse is an octagonal tower of masonry. It's attached to a two-story lighthouse keeper's house. Inactive, it's been abandoned since about 1980.
The island is uninhabited and reachable only by boat. The greatest danger for the Capraia lighthouse might be that it could fall apart and no one would notice.
When the Europeans began colonizing Africa, they built lighthouses to aid shipping and trade. Gabon was a French colony; its denizens built the lighthouse at Cap Lopez in 1911. The company -- run by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame -- built numerous cast-iron lighthouses, but it's not known for sure whether Eiffel built the Cap Lopez lighthouse. Lighthouse expert Russ Rowlett says that people often claim any cast-iron lighthouse as an Eiffel creation.
The 98-foot (30-meter) high lighthouse is threatened by erosion. It's also severely rusted and needs paint.
Cap Lopez is at the far western tip of Equatorial Africa. The lighthouse was built to help guide ships into the harbor at Port Gentil. It has been out of use for many years, but it's become a popular tourist attraction.
The Troubridge Island Lighthouse on Troubridge Island, off the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, was built in 1856 to guide mariners past the Troubridge Shoals. Made of cast-iron, the round, 79-foot (24-meter) high tower has wide, horizontal red and white stripes. It's made it through an earthquake and a fire, but the persistent erosion of the sea is threatening its existence. The sands are constantly shifting, and the lighthouse now stands at water's edge. When the seas are high in winter, the foundations are in danger.
The lighthouse became less important when a new lighthouse was built on nearby Troubridge Hill in 1980, and it was taken out of service sometime around 2002. Sandbags have been used to hold the sea at bay, but unless something more is done, it's probably only a matter of time before this lighthouse disappears for good.
As the Japanese began their military buildup for World War II, they built lighthouses on a number of Pacific Islands. Many of those lighthouses were destroyed during the war. The one the Japanese built on Garapan in the Northern Mariana Islands north of Guam is one of the best surviving examples. Since the war, the Northern Marianas have been a U.S. territory, and there's a good chance that the lighthouse, on what's now called Navy Hill, might be saved as part of the new Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. The lighthouse is on the U.S. National Register of Historical Places. Local residents have formed a Saipan Lighthouse Historical Society to help save it.
The Northern Mariana Islands Department of Lands and Natural Resources is looking into the idea of preserving the lighthouse and turning it into a visitor's center or educational center. Watch for a report in May 2011.
The lighthouse, a 50-foot (15-meter) high concrete tower, has a one-story keeper's house. The building was expanded and used as a restaurant, but that closed in 1995. The lighthouse is now gutted, open to the elements and in bad shape. But it's on a hill -- and safe from erosion.
In the far southeastern coast of Argentina, off Patagonia, in a cold, remote area that's uncomfortably close to Antarctica, lies Isla Pingüino. The desolate island can be reached only by helicopter or boat. It's a nature preserve, home to a large colony of penguins that don't mind the cold, wetness and wind.
In 1903, a 72-feet (22-meter) high lighthouse was built of masonry and topped with cast iron. A one-story building served as quarters for the keeper, but that's now falling apart.
Harsh conditions and the remoteness of the island -- not sea erosion -- have harmed the lighthouse. An automated light is still active, but the lighthouse is in very poor condition. Without maintenance, the tower will go the way of the keeper's house.
Lighthouses don't get much more endangered than the one at Galinhos in Northern Brazil and remain standing for long. Although this lighthouse was built as a structure on land, because of erosion, it now lies in the water at high tide. Like most South American countries, Brazil puts its lighthouses under the control of its navy, and the lighthouses are usually well maintained. The one at Galinhos is an exception. It's still active, but it probably can't stand indefinitely in the water.
The Galinhos light is small by lighthouse standards, only about 45 feet (14 meters) high. It's on a sandy beach and is often mentioned as a tourist attraction. Made of concrete, the lighthouse has a round tower and a gallery, and it's painted with horizontal red and white stripes. The lighthouse station was opened in 1931.
It's tough to rank endangered lighthouses, because you never know when one that's in a precarious position will suddenly topple, as the one on Half Moon Caye in Belize did in the fall of 2010. But even if it's not the most endangered lighthouse in the world, the one built in 1933 at Kiipsaar, Estonia, on the Baltic Sea, is without a doubt the most famous endangered lighthouse on Earth.
The Kiipsaar light is widely known as "the leaning lighthouse." It's a favorite subject for photographers, partly because it's so unusual looking, and partly because everyone who has seen it expects it to fall any day. Not surprisingly, the lighthouse has been inactive for some time.
Erosion caused many of the lighthouse's problems. The beach where the lighthouse stands has been washed away so that the lighthouse often lies in the water. For several years in the early 2000s, it leaned as much as 15 degrees. By 2008, it had straightened considerably. But that correction isn't good news. It is, rather, evidence that the waves have further eaten away sand under the base of the lighthouse. A fall is probably even more likely.
The only hope for this lighthouse is to move it, but there are no plans in the works for such a project.
Keep reading for lots more information.
Lighthouses were used in the days of sailing before GPS and other technologies made them obsolete. Read more about lighthouses at HowStuffWorks.
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