The Preservation of Heritage Sites and the Added Threat of Climate Change

Posted in Cultural Heritage Management

Climate change has been recognized by the Master of Arts in Cultural Heritage Management program at Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs as a significant threat to both the world’s natural and cultural heritage. The majority of climate scientists agree that the change in the world’s climate is a result of human action, these changes have affected not only the biodiversity of the planet, but also its surface— its mountains, oceans, rivers, and coastal areas. Some argue that the Earth has entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene period, marked by the significant impact of humans on the planet.

Anthropocene, or the age of humans, speaks to the effects of humankind on the Earth and its atmosphere. Though not officially approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences, many would argue that this new epoch should be recognized. The increased use of fossil fuels, industrial development of agriculture, and the urbanization of over 50% of 7 billion human beings have, and will continue to, threaten heritage, and life on Earth as a whole. Increased temperatures and rising sea levels have already caused irreparable damage to some of the world’s oldest and most recognized sites.

As humans continue to knowingly cause these changes, risks to natural and cultural sites have elevated. The amount of glacial melting impacts not only the aesthetics of a location, but can also affect the way of life of those who rely on run-off water, and local plant and animal life. Glacial melting on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain on the continent of Africa and a UENSCO world heritage site, has increased at such a rate that experts believe the glacier will be completely gone in just 15 years. In the 20th century alone, the mountain lost 80% of its glacial zone. Growing sea temperatures and increased Co2 levels have also led to a rise in coral bleaching, when a coral loses it colorful symbiotic algae and turns white. At the Great Barrier Reef, back-to-back bleaching events (in 2016 and 2017) have devastated nearly a thousand miles of reef. The climate threat to the reef impacts not only the marine biodiversity, but also the local economy through reduced fishing and decreased tourism.

Along with marine life, archaeological and historic locations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Heritage sites in coastal lowlands have taken the brunt of storms, which have not only increased in number, but in strength.  Most notably, the city of Venice, Italy, a UNESCO world heritage site, has seen a regular impact of rising sea levels that cause flooding. Though the city has been sinking at a rate of 10 centimeters per century due to natural reasons, the anticipated sea level rise estimates imply daily flooding in the city in the coming years, threatening its heritage and its economy.

Current and future Heritage Managers, like those completing the JHU AAP MA in Cultural Heritage Management, must continue to acknowledge the possible impact of climate change on their respective properties and strategize innovative ways to mitigate its effects and plan for the future.