Climate change has become a battle for the future of human life on Earth. But as we set our sights on the imminent challenges ahead, it can be easy to lose track of our past.
Cultural heritage sites are beacons of our remarkable legacy as a species. They're as diverse and complex as humanity itself, which is why UNESCO has designated 802 of them as worthy of protection. But as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, these treasured places are in danger of disappearing forever.
An international team of scientists, anthropologists, and economists have identified 31 cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage sites across 29 countries that are directly threatened by climate change. Among these are the Neolithic structures of Stonehenge, the towering moai on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Venice's historic architecture, and even the United States' own Statue of Liberty.
The coalition's troubling findings were detailed in a joint report released today by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
"There's never been a report that looks at the existing threats of right now," Adam Markham, lead author of the report and deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS, told me. "Once a site is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, there's no sort of mandatory reporting that has to be done. Countries are encouraged to provide state of conservation reports, however, not every World Heritage site has had one."
Many cultural World Heritage sites have already withstood the test of time. Jordan's ancient Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, contains breathtaking petroglyphs made by prehistoric civilizations that date back 12,000 years. But in recent decades, the archaeological consequences of war, terrorism, rampant tourism, and development have taken their toll.
Currently, UNESCO considers 48 World Heritage properties to be in danger of immediate destruction due to armed conflicts, natural disasters, or accelerated urbanization.
However, the dangers of climate change come as a one-two punch to many of these already vulnerable places. As the study notes, climate change is not only a direct threat—it's a threat multiplier. Unprecedented warming, melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening drought and longer wildfire seasons will disproportionately affect World Heritage sites unless drastic measures are taken to safeguard them.
Rapa Nui National Park, Rapa Nui, Chile
Rapa Nui, known to some as Easter Island or Te Pito o te Henua, is renowned for its behemoth moai sculptures that have fascinated and mystified anthropologists for centuries. In approximately 300 CE, an intrepid, seafaring society with roots in Polynesia arrived at the unsettled island. The people of Rapa Nui existed with little outside influence until the 16th century when their civilization began to inexplicably decline, perhaps due to resource exhaustion. Not long after, in 1722, the island was beset upon by an influx of European colonizers which contributed to the devastation of its indigenous population and unique structures. In 1888, Chile annexed Rapa Nui, and has claimed it as a territory ever since.
In 1996 UNESCO declared Rapa Nui National Park a World Heritage site, calling it "a testimony to the undeniably unique character of a culture that suffered a debacle as a result of an ecological crisis followed by the irruption from the outside world."
Currently, the site's moai, which represent ancestors and can reach heights of up to 80 feet, are jeopardized by sea-level rise, coastal inundation and erosion. According to the report, the majority of Rapa Nui's moai and ahu (ceremonial platforms made of lava rock) are located directly along the coastline. As a result of climate change, larger and more powerful waves will continue to inundate these sites. Rapa Nui's ahu are expected to deteriorate because of these impacts, and the moai that sit on top of them are at risk of toppling.
Stonehenge and Avebury, England
Stonehenge and Avebury in Southern England are two of the most identifiable and well-known Stone Age megaliths in the world. Anthropologists suspect these sites, which boast distinct complexes of menhirs (large, upright standing stones), were the cruxes of astronomical ceremonies conducted by Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples.
The structures located at these sites are testaments to these prehistoric societies' sophisticated knowledge of technology, architecture, and astronomy. When Stonehenge and Avebury were inscribed by UNESCO in 1986, it was in part due to their demonstration of "outstanding creative and technological achievements in prehistoric times."
However, these monuments that have withstood time since 3700 and 1600 CE are currently threatened by extreme weather events associated with worsening climate change, such as storms and flooding, the report warns. Throughout the United Kingdom, summers are becoming hotter and drier, and winters are now dangerously warmer and wetter. As a result, precipitation is reaching unprecedented levels, and coastlines are beginning to flood and erode important archaeological sites. In addition, warmer winters are likely to attract influxes of burrowing animals, such as rabbits and badgers, which could disturb and destabilize these massive stones.
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
Nepal's Sagarmatha encompases all of the Great Himalayan Range, including the foreboding Mount Sagarmatha (aka Everest)—the highest point on Earth's surface. In addition to its astounding ecological value, this region is also home to extensive Sherpa settlements. More than 6,000 Sherpas presently live in these mountains, and have flourished here for the last four centuries.
Sherpas' indigenous natural resource management practices are the reason why this national park has been such a conservation success story over the decades. And UNESCO designated the region as a World Heritage site due to its exceptional natural beauty, ecological significance, and intricate linkages of Sherpa culture.
Right now, Sagarmatha National Park is at risk of water resource exhaustion. Rising temperatures and precipitation changes are causing the Himalaya's glaciers to retreat, which impacts crucial water runoff. Glacier loss due to climate change has also threatened Sherpa communities with catastrophic landslides, flash floods, and glacial lake outbreaks. According to the report, millions of people—in addition to Sagarmatha's indigenous population—will be affected by dire water shortages in the future if snow and ice accumulation continue to be outpaced by melting glaciers.
Venice was founded in the 5th century, and currently displays some of the world's most unique and exquisite architecture. Byzantine, gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture can each be found in a single city square. Spread out over 118 small islands, all of Venice is considered to be an artistic masterpiece where works by Titian, Giorgionne, and Tintoretto are commonplace.
When Venice and its lagoon were added to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1987, the agency remarked that the "mistress of the seas is a link between the East and the West, between Islam and Christianity and lives on through thousands of monuments and vestiges of a time gone by."
However, because of its distinct waterfront properties, Venice is considered one of the World Heritage sites most at-risk from climate change. Its marshes will undoubtedly be impacted by global sea level rises, and have already begun to exacerbate existing flooding issues. Massive storm systems and tidal surges have become more frequent over the last 60 years. And rising water levels continue to overflow barricades put in place to stop the ocean from eating away at buildings' foundations. As climate change worsens, the report predicts these barriers will be completely ineffective at preventing Venice's historic architecture from sinking into the sea.
Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley), Lebanon
Ouadi Qadisha in Lebanon is considered one of the most important religious sites in the world. Its many monasteries and pilgrimage sites date back to the earliest years of Christianity. Those who visited the region claimed to have sought God in its pristine and majestic cedar forests.
Because the site's historic significance is inherently tied to its natural values—Ouadi Qadisha is home to Horsh Arz el-Rab (the Forest of the Cedars of God), which contains the oldest and largest cedars (Cedrus libani) known to exist—climate change has long been a concern for local ecologists.
Global warming is projected to reduce cedar populations to only a fraction of the tree's native range, the report notes. Currently, only 5 percent of the cedar tree's original extent has persisted. The bioclimatic zone of Horsh Arz el-Rab faces habitat fragmentation and a loss of resilience due to increasing temperatures and a lack of moisture. Unlike other plants, Ouadi Qadisha's sacred cedar forests are unable to migrate to more temperate zones, which means their survival depends on heavy conservation management.
Climate change, tourism, and global responsibility
While each of the 31 case studies presented requires specialized conservation solutions, researchers have made it clear that the ultimate responsibility for protecting these monuments is a shared one.
"In the case of developing countries, they can request help," Markham added. "Developing countries just don't have the resources, funds, or expertise to adequately assess the impacts of climate change on their World Heritage site."
In addition to the strategies presented in the Paris Agreement's monumental climate deal, the report's authors also beg the global tourism industry to drive sustainable development, and assist the preservation of natural and cultural heritage.
Travel and tourism now account for 10 percent of global GDP, and combined are one of the fast-growing economic sectors in the world. If poorly managed, irresponsible tourism could significantly and irreversibly damage many of these sites. France's Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley have been closed off to tourists since 1963, due to the damaging effects that tourism had on prehistoric cave art. And Peru's Machu Picchu is on the verge of a massive landslide as a result of the 300,000 tourists who make the trek to the ancient city every year.
In July this year, the World Heritage Committee will meet in Istanbul, Turkey to advocate for the recommendations made in the report.
"You know, we're coming up to Memorial Day. And I think when people hear about this, they'll be completely shocked that climate change is any kind of an issue in the places they're hoping to visit," Markham commented. "The level of threat is surprising."