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Rising seas threaten dozens of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

"Without appropriate adaptation measures, combined with rigorous global-scale mitigation, our world's cultural heritage could be severely damaged by sea-level rise," researchers wrote.

By Brooks Hays
In Venice, a project to install mobile flood barriers at the entrance to the lagoon is currently underway. Photo by Lena Reimann/Sally Brown/CAU
In Venice, a project to install mobile flood barriers at the entrance to the lagoon is currently underway. Photo by Lena Reimann/Sally Brown/CAU

Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Rising seas are putting coastal UNESCO World Heritage Sites at risk.

For sites such as the Old City of Dubrovnik and the ruins of Carthage, the threat of harmful storm surges and coastal erosion will increase significantly as the effects of climate change progress.

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To better characterize the risks facing sites of historic and cultural significant in the Mediterranean, scientists surveyed the exposure of 49 low-lying UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the region.

Of the 49 sites, 37 would be affected by a 100-year storm surge. Another 42 are threatened by coastal erosion. As sea levels rise, the risk of a storm surge capable of damaging world heritage sites is expected to increase by 50 percent.

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Scientists analyzed each heritage site's proximity from the coast, as well each site's elevation.

"Using this database and model simulations of flooding, taking into account various scenarios of sea-level rise, we were able to develop indices: the index for flood risk and for erosion risk," Lena Reimann, geographer at Kiel University in Germany, said in a news release.

The physical characteristics of each site's coastal surroundings helped scientists gauge the risk of erosion. Scientists based their risk assessment on a high-end climate change scenario, which anticipates sea level rise of at least four feet by the end of the century.

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"Even if such a high sea-level rise has a low probability of occurring by the year 2100, this scenario cannot be ruled out, due to the high uncertainties in relation to the melting of the ice sheets," said Athanasios Vafeidis, geography professor at Kiel. "In addition, such a scenario is quite relevant from a risk management perspective, since a 5% probability in this context is not low."

Several studies suggest a 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures could result in sea level rise of more than a dozen feet. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, however, would significantly reduce the risk of extreme sea level rise.

Reimann, Vafeidis and their research partners detailed the risk assessment in a new paper published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

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The authors of the new paper recommend adaptation and mitigation work begin immediately in order to protect UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In Venice, a project to install mobile flood barriers at the entrance to the lagoon is currently underway. Scientists argue similar efforts should be planned and implemented at the sites detailed in the new study.

"Without appropriate adaptation measures, combined with rigorous global-scale mitigation, our world's cultural heritage could be severely damaged by sea-level rise, and therefore lose its outstanding value as a UNESCO World Heritage Site," researchers wrote.

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