Climate change is one of the immense challenges facing our world today, and its impacts are felt across the globe. As temperatures rise and natural disasters become more frequent and intense, cultural heritage sites are increasingly at risk. These sites are valuable symbols of human history and creativity, providing a sense of identity and continuity for communities and nations. However, with rising sea levels, increased weather extremes, and other impacts of climate change, these heritage sites are becoming increasingly vulnerable to damage and loss. Thus, we must take action to protect these cultural treasures from the effects of climate change. By doing so, we can ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to experience the unique cultural heritage of our world and understand its place in human history.
Impacts of Climate Change on Tangible Heritage
Today, there are 1157 World Heritage sites recognized by UNESCO, including both tangible and natural heritage sites. Climate change has a significant impact on these sites in various ways. For instance, extreme precipitation, high-tide flooding, extreme heat, increased Atlantic hurricanes, and wildfires are affecting the sites globally.
In terms of natural sites, rising temperatures are causing the rapid melting of glaciers, leading to downstream flooding. For example, a 2019 study showed that 21 out of 46 World Heritage glaciers could be lost by 2100 (Bosson, Huss & Osipova, 2019). Furthermore, rising temperatures in the Arctic are putting ancient ice-age artifacts at risk, such as the Ice Tunnel in Jotunheimen National Park in Norway.
Coastal erosion and sea level rise are also impacting World Heritage sites along the Mediterranean and Arctic coasts, putting 42 out of 49 coastal World Heritage properties at risk, including areas in North Africa. (Reimann et al, 2019) In Delos, Greece, sea level rise has caused damage to ancient stone artifacts due to flooding and capillary action. River flooding, caused by sea level rise, has also sunk entire sites, such as the Meroe Pyramids in Sudan and parts of Paris, France.
When it comes to built heritage, changing precipitation patterns and increased biological degradation, among other factors, are causing damage to buildings and structures. These changes have significant impacts not only on the environment but also on the people living within it.
More than Destruction – Tourism and Economic Factor
Not all heritage sites are simply tourist destinations; they sustain entire settlements. The deterioration of world heritage sites has not only an impact on their historical value, but also on economic conditions, social conditions, tourism, health, and lifestyles. For example, damage and erosion from precipitation have affected the heritage sites of Oudane in Mauritania and Koutammakou in Togo, increasing the frequency and cost of maintenance and negatively impacting the economy. Sand dune migration in these areas has also led to the displacement of habitats due to increased wind flows.
In Angkor, Cambodia, tourist numbers doubled from 2010 to 2014 to 2.3 million per year (Chen et al, 2017). Despite the popularity of the tourism industry, it has become increasingly difficult to access these sites due to land subsidence. Land subsidence refers to the gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface due to the removal or shifting of subsurface materials and has caused significant damage to monuments. The cause of land subsidence in Cambodia is due to changing rainfall patterns and increased water consumption due to tourist development, leading to a vicious cycle of deterioration to the environment.
Impacts of Climate Change on Intangible Heritage
Intangible heritage is facing several major losses as a result of the impacts of climate change. This includes changes to the timing of seasonal harvests and the availability of traditionally hunted species, disruptions to important rituals and festivals, the loss of traditional materials used for constructing buildings or making costumes, changes to language that describe climate or cultural traditions, traditional stories losing their significance and connection to specific places, and the migration of people to urban areas leading to the loss of important knowledge and cultural practices. These losses threaten to erode the unique cultural heritage that makes each community distinct and valuable.
What can we do?
To mitigate the effects of climate change on world heritage sites, it is essential to take a comprehensive and coordinated approach. This includes reducing the number of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere, as well as implementing adaptation measures to make these sites more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Some adaptation measures that can be taken include increasing the protection of cultural and natural assets, improving the management of water resources, and reducing the risk of natural disasters. Raising awareness about the impacts of climate change on heritage sites and the importance of protecting them is also critical, as this can help to mobilize action and support. Additionally, supporting research into the impacts of climate change on heritage sites and how these impacts can be mitigated is essential for developing effective strategies to protect these sites. Finally, supporting local communities in their efforts to protect heritage sites, and working with local authorities and other stakeholders to develop sustainable tourism and economic development strategies, can help to ensure that these sites are preserved for future generations. International cooperation is also crucial in addressing the global challenge of climate change and its impacts on world heritage sites.
Reimann, L. (2018) “Mediterranean UNESCO World Heritage at risk from coastal flooding and erosion due to sea-level rise,” Nature Communications , 9(4161). Available at: https://doi.org/https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-06645-9.
Centre, U.N.E.S.C.O.W.H. (2023) Climate change and world heritage, World Heritage Centre. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/climatechange/ (Accessed: February 12, 2023).
Markham, A. (2016) Climate Impacts and World Heritage , Copernicus. Available at: https://climate.copernicus.eu/ (Accessed: February 12, 2023).