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Sea Level Rise Threatens World’s Cultural Treasures

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It’s easy to see why Venice is a World Heritage Site when taking in the view from the Rialto Bridge. The Grand Canal stretches into the distance as gondoliers’ voices mingle with the sound of motorboats and echo off the ornate pastel buildings lining the city’s main thoroughfare. People bustle along the sidewalks that line the canal and disappear down side alleys and canals that make up the watery city.

Yet that scene and others at societally significant sites around the world could be in jeopardy thanks to sea level rise according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters.

Venice is one of 136 UNESCO World Heritage Sites that would be swallowed by rising seas if temperatures rise 5.4°F above pre-industrial levels according to the new research from scientists at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Innsbruck. Uncertainty in sea level rise rates coupled with how fast land in certain areas is sinking or rising mean that number could range from 111 to 155 sites. That level of warming falls within the range of the latest projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by 2100.

In addition to Venice, other historical icons that could be threatened include the Tower of London and Independence Hall. More modern icons such as the Statue of Liberty, Sydney Opera House, and Hiroshima Peace Memorial are also threatened.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites receive their designation because they’re some of the most unique and historically important places around the globe. There are 962 sites spread across 160 countries. The research used a list from 2012 that had 720 sites listed.

Temperatures have already risen 1.4°F since the start of the 20th century. That change already commits nearly 40 sites to dealing with the effects of sea level rise well into the future. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, the unique coastal ecosystems on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and the ornate carving of Elephanta Caves caves in India’s Mumbai Harbor are just some of the 40 World Heritage Sites likely to be affected by the current “locked in” sea level rise.

Loss of cultural world heritage and currently inhabited places to sea-level rise

The study doesn’t account for the impacts that particularly high tides or storm surges could have. Venice already deals with regular flooding due to those factors and sea level rise could help set even higher water marks.

The research took the long view, looking at possible temperature and sea level changes over the course of 2,000 years, which allows researchers to more accurately calculate the contribution of sea level rise from Greenland and Antarctica.

While 2,000 years is certainly a long view, consider that a number of sites on UNESCO’s list have been around that long or even longer. Byblos, Lebanon, is one of the longest continually inhabited places on Earth. Archeological digs in the city have revealed ruins 8,000-years-old. In that context, the 2,000-year timeframe of the study seems suddenly much smaller when considering the value placed on preserving the past. Without adapting these sites to the challenges of sea level rise, they could meet the same fate as Atlantis.

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