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Climate Change to Drown World Heritage Sites

A rise in the global sea level caused by climate change could inundate many of the world’s most popular and culturally important locations.
Photo by Roberto Tim

Future trips to some of your favorite tourist attractions may require a paddle and a pair of swimmies, according to a new study by two climate scientists that was published earlier this week by Environmental Research Letters.

The study reports that the current trajectory of climate change will cause a catastrophic increase in the global sea level over the next couple of millennia, affecting many of the world’s most popular and culturally relevant locations — such as the Tower of London, the Statue of Liberty, the center of St. Petersburg, and pretty much all of Venice.


Other historic sites on the study’s list include the Sydney Opera House, Westminster Palace, and Independence Hall. In all, the study says 136 UNESCO World Heritage sites would be flooded.

“The key to our results are projections for the future sea-level rise, which are based on models,” Ben Marzeion, the study’s lead author, told VICE News. “We tested those models against sea levels in Earth’s past, about three million years ago, 400 thousand years ago, and 100 thousand years ago.”

Those models indicated that an increase in the average global temperature of just 3 degrees Celsius would bring calamitous tidal rises and displace 7 percent of the world’s population. While the study looks 2,000 years into the future, it suggests that ruinous changes in the sea level due to man-made climate change will be visible within our lifetimes.

“The global average temperature has already increased by 0.8 degrees [Celsius] from pre-industrial levels,” reported Marzeion’s co-author, Anders Levermann, in a press briefing. “If our greenhouse gas emissions increase as they have done in the past, physical models project a global warming of up to five degrees by the end of this century.”

The study has its skeptics.

Jay Lehr, the science director at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative and libertarian think tank and one of the leading organizations promoting scientific skepticism about human-caused climate change, told VICE News that he deeply questions the validity of the study’s models.


“These kinds of studies have no value other than to scare people, or maybe garner more money to study something,” Lehr said. “You can cherry-pick numbers all day."

Lehr has a Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology from the University of Arizona, and said that he's been studying climate change for over 35 years.

“We’re only 56 percent accurate in predicting weather seven days away,” he said, “so to take action today based on predictions 100 years away is absurd.”

While the authors acknowledged that they couldn’t account for certain variables — such as natural shifts in land surface elevations, short-term sea-level variability due to storms, and interventional measures like dike building — Marzeion stands by their results. He told VICE News that, if anything, he and Levermann are probably underestimating the possibilities.

“We do not know whether there will be the technological capacity to handle a sea-level rise of this magnitude in the future,” he said. Marzeion noted that the model’s results compare nicely to the data of previous time periods.

Mindi Rambo, a spokesperson for the National Parks of New York Harbor, which oversees Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty, told VICE News that the National Parks Service is eager to understand and plan for the impact of climate change on the sites and areas that it manages.

In addition to undertaking an initial evaluation for adapting to future rises in sea-level and storm surges, like the ones experienced during Hurricane Sandy, the National Park Service is launching a project “to examine coastal parks vulnerable to sea level change and flooding from coastal storms,” she said.

The bottom line, according to Marzeion, is that if we don’t control the impact we’re having on the environment, the consequences will be disastrous and widespread.

“What we are doing by emitting greenhouse gases is putting an expiration date on our cultural heritage,” he said.

Photo via Flickr