Culture and climate change: UNESCO World Heritage sites threatened by sea level rise

Concerns about climate change are often expressed in environmental and economic terms, but a new study has brought an “an additional dimension” to the discussion: that of culture and human heritage

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Although not on the coast, the Leaning Tower of Pisa could also be affected by increased sea levels, due to its low-lying situation, The Guardian reported. 

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, and even Westminster Abbey could become victims of rising sea levels if current trends in global warming are maintained over the next two millenia, says a new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, reported on by Science Daily.

19% (or 136) of the 740 UNESCO current World Heritage sites will be affected if the earth experiences a rise in temperature of a mere 3C, triggering extensive melting of ice sheets and glaciers. This is a temperature shift which, according to climate science experts, could very well occur within the next century.

The paper also makes clear that loss of territory is among other potential problems brought on by ever-rising sea levels: “at this warming level, 3–12 countries will experience a loss of more than half of their current land surface, 25–36 countries lose at least 10% of their territory, and 7% of the global population currently lives in regions that will be below local sea level.” These  would include low lying cities like Venice, Naples, Bruges, St Petersburg and Hamburg, as well as islands like the Maldives and the Bahamas.

A study which focuses on the cultural impact marks a distinct change in tact from the typical worries about costs and environmental systems, perhaps to appeal to those who remain sceptical about the subject of climate change. UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the “identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”. These sites represent the beauty of nature but also that beauty created by civilisation through art, architecture and infrastructure. And indeed, although two millenia seems rather a long way away, many currently existing world heritage sites are as old or older than this. Meaning some may sit up and take note despite the extent of the conjecture.

One may not need to justify the study’s importance any further however, as the lead author, Prof Ben Marzeion of the University of Innsbruck in Austria told the Guardian: “It’s relatively safe to say that we will see the first impacts at these sites in the 21st century,” and instructs that flood defences must be improved to mitigate these effects.

Sources: The Guardian, Science Daily, iopscience, Environmental Research Letters

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