Climate Change Effects On Cultural Heritage
March 5, 2014

Climate Change And Sea Level Rise Will One Day Threaten Cultural World Heritage Sites

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Modern disaster movies often dazzle audiences by showing the destruction of iconic landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or Sydney Opera House. While these scenes are works of fiction, a new report in the journal Environmental Research Letters has found that sea-level rise driven by climate change could endanger these cultural landmarks.

The study researchers showed 136 iconic sites that would be affected if the present global warming trend continues and temperatures go up to 5.4 degrees F above pre-industrial levels in the next 2000 years – a reasonable scenario according to the study.

"The physical processes behind the global rise of the oceans are gradual, but they will continue for a very long time," said study author Ben Marzeion, a climatologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. "This will also impact the cultural world heritage."

"After 2000 years, the oceans would have reached a new equilibrium state and we can compute the ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica from physical models,” added co-author Anders Levermann, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “At the same time, we consider 2000 years a short enough time to be of relevance for the cultural heritage we cherish."

In the study, the scientists calculated the probable sea-level increase for each degree of global warming and identified territories where UNESCO World Heritage sites will be placed at risk in the future. While previous studies have concentrated mainly on ecological and agricultural effects of climate change, Marzeion and Levermann said they wanted to concentrate on how changes might affect our cultural heritage.

The researchers found that if global average temperatures rise by 1.8 degrees F, or 1 degree Celsius, over 40 of these sites will be threatened by the water during the next two millennia. With a temperature increase of 5.4 degrees F, around 20 percent of the cultural sites in places like Naples, Italy and Istanbul, Turkey will be affected in the long term.

"The fact that tides and storm surges could already affect these cultural sites much earlier has not even been taken into account,” Marzeion said.

The study team said climatologists must also start to consider the different regional rates of sea level rise.

"If large ice masses are melting and the water is dispersed throughout the oceans, this will also influence the Earth's gravitational field," Levermann said. "Sea-level rise will therefore vary between regions."

The researchers also said that twelve countries stand to lose over half of their present land area and about 30 countries could lose one tenth of their area if their scenario of a 5.4-degree rise on temperatures comes to pass.

"Island states in the Pacific and the Caribbean as well as the Maldives and the Seychelles are particularly threatened, but not only these," Levermann said.

"A majority of their population will eventually need to leave their home islands in the long-term, so most of their culture could be entirely lost sooner or later if the warming trend is not stopped," Marzeion added. "If that sea-level rise occurred today, more than 600 million people would be affected and would have to find a new home.”