Our earth has a heavy anthropological past that we’ve only been able to interpret from the ruins of ancient civilizations, left behind in rubble. Some evidence buried deep underground has been due to years of soil deposition and changing terrains, excavated decades, even centuries later. Some have naturally weathered away, eroding with the rapidly changing climate globally. Some have sunk to the seabed because of weak foundations, and our inability to quickly act towards preservation once in danger.
Rise in global temperatures, sea levels, and the changing air pressure and winds has put many archeological sites across the world in danger. Over 20,000 sites globally are under threat due to climate change and global warming, according to ArcGIS. The effects can already be seen.
All archaeological sites fall under cultural and historic heritage. This could be spanning from tangible heritage like lands, capital cities, certain types of materials or structures made by ancient builders, or even ornaments and tools found in archaeological sites. The more intangible form would be our traditional, cultural ties, knowledge and identities with certain cultural aspects under religion, and belief systems, etc.
We’ve learned so much from our ancestors about civilization through their sculptures, paintings, and architecture. Let’s take a look at our heritage, and how the constant changing climate is leading to the steady deterioration of the world before us. It’s like our past is eroding, while our future is still endangered. How do we stop it?
This article will look into a few examples of the impact of climate change, and we will also talk about what organizations and countries are doing to preserve their cultural heritage globally.
Affected and endangered Sites
One of the biggest challenges has been foreseeing the long-term damage climate change will cause. Sites that are endangered and sites that could potentially see danger in the future also need to be considered. Here are a few cultural and historical sites that have been affected on land, and around coastal areas.
L A N D
One of the oldest archaeological sites in the world dating back to the 4th century BC is the Megalithic Temples of Malta. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, three parts of this temple complex were covered with a protective shelter in 2009 through an EU co-funded project. The shelter is said to last for at least the next 25-30 years. The temples in Malta have been suffering the brunt of weathering because of rain, fluctuation in temperatures around the area, salinization, pollution, solar radiation exposure and much more. Not only this, but the neolithic temples were home to a biological community of lichen that has also been affected. The lichen has been threatened by the changing micro-climate since the installation of the shelter, not allowing the original ecosystem of lichen to thrive like before. The shelters have helped save the sites from extreme weather conditions, and salt damage to the sites has reduced massively. There is less direct water passing through the megaliths through precipitation or rain, and in turn less of it is being absorbed by the ground, which would earlier lead to deterioration of the megaliths’ foundations.
Archaeological sites in Egypt in desert land have been damaged due to rising temperatures and pollution, including the weathering of petroglyphs, falling pillars, and more. The damage to the colossi of Memnon has also occurred due to rising temperatures. The ancient city of Petra in Jordan was also hit by raging floods, a major threat to archeological sites there.
In the UK, the Stonehenge and other monuments are under threat. The Stonehenge is facing increased rainfall over the past few years, and the possible risk of flooding in the nearby river Kennet. Besides affecting neighbouring regions, visitors to this archeological site may face problems in future. Another reason for worry is warmer winters, which invite burrowing animals like rabbits, badgers and moles to increase in population around the area. This in turn, threatens the stability of these stone structures due to burrowing activity underground, and disturbs the archeological sites. This was a problem most of us didn’t even foresee!
There’s a direct impact on the archaeological expanses of Greenland as well. Greenland is partly up in the arctic, and archeological sites there are of huge importance to the world. The amount of organic material that has been frozen in ice for centuries has been prevented from natural decay. This has let us also study the ancient world and early settlements in the region for a long time. The rapid thawing of permafrost over the past three decades has led to many problems – coastal erosion due to loss of sea ice, tundra region fires increasing, and the rapid melting of land ice. This continues in more regions of the Arctic like Norway. Even bacteria presently decomposing organic materials trapped in ice have been generating heat in their metabolizing process, accelerating the rate of thawing in these frozen areas.
Climate change has brought to existence a new form of archaeology called Glacial Archaeology, which covers artefacts discovered since major ice melts in the past few decades. Many archaeologists from Scandinavia and the North American region have been looking for ice patches containing floral and faunal remains. Any new uncovered discoveries could reveal early hunting and nomadic lifestyles, but none of this came for free (literally at the cost of ice melting).
The melting Himalayan glaciers are going to have devastating effects on agriculture, drinking water, and power generation. This could potentially have a huge impact on tourism in the next few years, and if at all local communities decide to migrate, it could affect the maintenance of important archaeological sites in India, Nepal and Tibet.
C O A S T A L
Coastal flooding and erosion is a reality for monuments bordering the coasts. Mediterranean sites like Pompeii that are low-lying are at immediate risk of being affected by rising sea levels. As we know, the Mediterranean region is rich in locations of very ancient origin. According to Climate Change Post, 37 out of 59 heritage sites are at risk from a 100-year flood, and 42 from coastal erosion as of today. What is even less seen is the effect of land subsidence as groundwater is being extracted in cities like Istanbul and Venice, along with some river deltas like that of the Rhone, or Nile. The land subsidence is human-induced, one of the major factors for climate change!
Illustration based on image by Stefano Mazzola / Awakening / Getty in October 2018
The romantic city of Venice is predicted to be almost fully submerged in the next 30 years. While there have been measures taken, the drastic rise in sea levels, changing tide, and wave motion from motor boats travelling constantly is affecting the archeological as well as urban landscape of Venice. The 5th Century site in Northern Italy is now under the radar as one of the sites most affected in the past two decades globally.
In Egypt, Alexandria faces the threat of flooding from rising sea levels. The citadel of Qaitbay in Alexandria has lost over 2400 stones to the rising water levels in the Mediterranean sea.
Far out in the Pacific Ocean, the monuments of Easter Island are under threat from rising sea levels. Also known as Rapa Nui, the Polynesian site’s conservation has always been a concern. The weathering of the island’s composite lava rock, as well as the statues in the Rapa Nui National Park are inevitable.
The mosque city of Bagerhat in Bangladesh is the point where two major Asian rivers of the Ganges and Brahmaputra meet. Due to the rising sea levels and salinity, the integrity of this UNESCO World Heritage site has been threatened, leading to the decomposition of bricks and rocks used to build the 15th Century AD structures.
Archaeological sites like Scotland’s Skara Brae, one of the oldest villages from the Stone Age, are under threat from the changing coastline. Skara Brae was buried in wind-blown sand until it was discovered in 1850 once again by coastal erosion blowing the sand off. Statistics show that since the 1970s, about 12% coastline erosion has occurred from Scottish beaches. “By 2050, more heritage sites can be seen in danger as erosion quickens and expands into different areas,” said Alistair Rennie of Scottish Natural Heritage.
Countries like The Netherlands who boast of having the ‘best flooding defense in the world’, are also facing problems. Even the UK will soon face the problem of archaeological sites and museums flooding due to rivers and increasing precipitation levels. However, the Dutch were always prepared to encounter this problem. Considering most of the Dutch museums are below ground level, or have several artifacts in their basements, some places have come up with ways to keep water out that enters by means of precipitation (rain) and not necessarily overflowing or rivers. Increased thresholds, flood gates at museum entrances, etc., have been The Netherlands’ ways of countering damage to their cultural history.
Global Organizations & Advisory Bodies Taking Action
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) are the two main bodies on a global scale working towards the preservation of cultural heritage sites. While UNESCO also safeguards natural resources, they have understood and taken the impact of climate change on ecosystems and cultural heritage into account. The Committee even requested the World Heritage Centre to put together a group of experts who can ‘predict and manage the effects of climate change on world heritage,’ and put together a strategy to assist with the appropriate responses with the respective state parties. This concluded in what is called the Policy Document, which outlines preventive measures and management, updated at every session, including online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The World Heritage Centre also launched the World Heritage Convention, where suggestions were taken from various stakeholders, NGOs, advisory bodies, site managers, local communities and more (a total of 360 contributions) to help understand the expectations, views and best practices hereon. So far, the 44th extended session took place on July 31, 2021, with all new contributions to the Policy Document to be implemented by September 15, 2021.
ICOMOS also announced its support as well for the new World Heritage Climate Change Policy with the Policy Document on Climate Action for World Heritage. However, article 2 (B) on Climate change-related activities in relation with culture and heritage states clearly that despite the fundamental relationship between culture and climate change mitigation and adaptation, experts unanimously asserted that culture is largely absent from discussions on climate change today, yet there is a need to ensure the inclusion of culture in decision-making processes related to climate change.
However, there continues to be an initiative between UNESCO, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and ICOMOS called the ‘Cultural Heritage and Climate Change’. Newer drafts of the policy also include the ICOMOS recognizing the need for a precautionary approach of limiting global warming to 1.5°C as the most effective approach for the protection of the cultural and natural heritage, as stated on ICOMOS’ press release.
G20 members held a webinar in April 2021 on ‘Addressing the Climate Crisis through Culture’, and have also urged for leveraging culture and supporting its inclusion in the global climate agenda. The World Heritage Climate Action Goals largely outline targets that State Parties need to fulfill by 2030 on thorough assessment of natural and cultural heritage.
We can only hope no one snoozes over the piles of documentation meant to effectively help cultural sites in wake of the global climate crisis.
Places like Edinburgh in Scotland are taking measures to keep the city as green as possible, and try to curb the effects of cloud bursts and excess rainfall. According to Climate Change Post, the city works on Edinburgh Adapts with partners such as the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, Historic Environment Scotland, Edinburgh World Heritage, Scottish Wildlife Trust, and The Edinburgh Biodiversity Partnership, among others. The initiative also gave rise to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act of 2009, which makes it public organizations’ in Scotland’s legal duty to report progress on management and the impacts of climate change regularly.
Well, we humans are the reason for rapid climate change across the globe. There are many things we do on a daily basis that contribute to climate change, which, if we minimize or bring to a bare minimum, could help. This starts with us, and spreads to the people around us, through us.
Carbon emissions are the number one factor, so their proper lobbying, lowering emissions per year, and holding companies accountable will help create and set better standards worldwide. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was surely made so we can together strive to keep the temperature of the planet below 2˚C. Every single increase of even 0.5˚C has a major impact on the natural environment’s system, and failing to keep an eye out could char the planet, or create extreme weather conditions not suitable for life.
So let’s not burn out the goldilocks zone, and preserve the history and culture our forefathers left behind. We still have much to learn!