The Impact of Climate Change on Our Cultural Heritage

Flooding of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy, November 14, 2004.

Basilica San Marco
Wikipedia/Wolfgang Moroder
Flooding of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy, November 14, 2004.
The Dangers Posed to the World’s Historic Monuments Continues to Grow

The Dangers Posed to the World’s Historic Monuments Continues to Grow

Photo: Tigerente via Wikimedia Commons

Otzi Obelisk, 2009.

As carbon sinks, the arctic regions of the world are experiencing the brunt of climate change.

 

As we move steadily closer to inhabiting a world warmer than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels, it is increasingly clear that every aspect of human life is either already feeling or will very soon feel the ravages of a hotter climate. Changes in global climate patterns have already shown how devastating they can be under the 1.5 degree threshold, displacing tens of millions of people worldwide. The threat to our present and future global society is painfully apparent, however, the archaeological structures and artifacts of our global past stand to be a victim of the climate crisis as well.

For decades now, the international scholarly community has been crying out against the onrush of catastrophes approaching humankind’s historic archaeological sites, both known and unknown, due to shifting climates. Floods, wildfires, droughts, and storms are becoming more prevalent, more violent, and more widespread accelerating the deterioration and destruction of archaeological remains faster than professionals and scholars can document or save them.

This is not to say, of course, that environmental dangers of destruction have never been an issue at archaeological sites before. In fact, some ancient ruins have only survived to us today exactly because of destructive natural phenomena. Pompeii, the ancient Roman city preserved under seven meters of volcanic material after the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, is a prime example. 

Coastal erosion, rainfall, wind, seismic activity, floral and faunal encroachment as well as continuous human habitation have all posed continuous threats to or have already destroyed countless sites over the course of human history. What is different now, however, is the accelerated pace of climate change directly influencing the intensity of natural weather patterns or the introduction of entirely new threats to environments unprepared for them. From Japan to Greece, Greenland to Colorado, no part of the human inhabited earth is unaffected.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Pompeii

Many of the most obvious threats exist at sites we already know of and are due to intensified weather in their respective regions. In the Nile River Basin, for instance, flooding is a natural part of the river’s life cycle, annually expected to bring rich alluvial soils to the surrounding landscape critical to the region’s agricultural practices. In 2020, however, unprecedented flood levels in Sudan shattered expectations and put numerous archaeological sites at extreme risk of destruction. One in particular, al-Bajrawiya, the site of the Meroë Pyramids and a two-thousand-year-old United Nations World Heritage Site critical to our understanding of the ancient Kush Kingdom, was nearly destroyed, saved only thanks to emergency measures taken by local authorities to lay sandbags and pump water away from the sites for multiple days. The same flooding event killed over 100 people and displaced more than 500,000.

Similarly, in Iraq, whose ancient lands are often deemed the cradle of civilization, drying riverbeds due to an increasingly hotter, dryer climate are allowing salty seawater to intrude further inland and soak deep into the earth. While salt is naturally occurring in much of the land and waters of Iraq, this higher concentration is causing catastrophic damage to cities such as the famous Babylon. When soaked up into the mud bricks of the city’s structures, the salt weakens and breaks down the bricks, eroding them from the inside. If a solution is not sought, this will prove cataclysmic to the structural integrity of this incredible site and entire buildings, which have thus far survived for millennia, will be at risk of complete collapse. The problem of Iraq’s dwindling rivers is only made worse when factoring in how human reliance on these increasingly precious water sources is only going to skyrocket as the region becomes more arid and inhospitable to human life.

While these examples demonstrate how the intensification of pre-existing climate patterns present increased dangers for historic and cultural sites, there are also two new climate changes that are causing the most significant threats to the greatest number of sites and objects: rising sea levels and the melting arctic.

It is an established scientific fact that sea levels are rising and that by the year 2100 altered shores will have displaced millions of people from coastal cities and settlements. The change in global coastlines will also cause the destruction of countless ancient and historical sites. Many sites and modern cities will simply vanish into the oceans and seas with their monuments such as Venice. While The Floating City has always been at risk of Acqua Alta, or high water, strong storms like one that hit the city in 2019 have become more frequent in recent decades. 

Other cities will erode to nothing as sea levels rise and bring more damaging and intense storms. Skara Brae, for example, is an incredible example of Neolithic culture in the Orkney Islands of Scotland which has helped us to understand how humans lived during this period of our deep past. The discovery of the site was in part due to an intense storm in 1850, however, as storms become more frequent and destructive, another such event could irrevocably damage or destroy the site beyond repair or study.

The crumbling walls of Babylon.
Via Wikimedia Commons

The crumbling walls of Babylon. 

Pompeii
Wikipedia

Pompeii

house No. 7
Wikimedia commons

View over the settlement at Skara Brae, showing a covering of house No. 7 and its proximity to the modern shoreline. The glass roof has now been replaced by one made of turf, as the humidity and heat caused by the glass roof were obstructing preservation. 

Al-Bajrawiya
Wikimedia Commons

Al-Bajrawiya, the site of the Meroë Pyramids and a two-thousand-year-old United Nations World Heritage Site critical to our understanding of the ancient Kush Kingdom, was nearly destroyed, saved only thanks to emergency measures taken by local authorities to lay sandbags and pump water away from the sites for multiple days.

2020 Flooding of Al-Bajrawiya
Still taken from Youtube video posted by Al Jazeera English

2020 Flooding of Al-Bajrawiya, the site of the Meroë Pyramids and a two-thousand-year-old United Nations World Heritage Site.

Flooding of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy.
Photo: Kikuko Nakayama. Via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

Flooding of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy. 

Most concerning and pressing of all, however, are the losses we face both environmentally and historically in the arctic. Due to arctic regions’ extremely cold temperatures, an incredible amount of human materials are able to be preserved under snow, ice, and within permafrost earth. Between the subzero temperatures and often anaerobic (oxygen-less) environments, materials such as wood, leather, plant matter, and even entirely intact human remains complete with hair and skin are preserved in astonishingly good condition. Thus, many of the finds in these chilly regions of the world have been some of the richest and most illuminating about humanity's ancient past. Yet, when such finds are uncovered too rapidly or without proper care, they are at risk of accelerated deterioration. Such is now the case for innumerable arctic sites.

As carbon sinks, the arctic regions of the world are experiencing the brunt of climate change, taking on the most dramatic and frightening changes many times faster than the rest of the globe. So, as ice sheets and permafrost continue to melt and thaw under higher temperatures, objects and sites safely frozen and preserved within are at risk of rapidly decaying to the point of complete destruction when reintroduced to oxygenated air and microbial agents. The same holds true for mountainous regions with frozen climates. The famous Ötzi the Iceman, for instance, discovered high up in the Italian Alps was an incredible discovery and led to a rich corpus of dialogue, but it was only possible to have found him under conditions in which Alpine ice caps were already melting. It is thus sobering to note that Ötzi was discovered in 1994.

So what can be done? Like most aspects of the climate crisis, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges. We cannot, however, ignore the efforts and progress that have already been and continue to be made.

The establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 was a foundational moment in the fight to protect our cultural heritage, helping many international organizations and governments that oversee the care of such sites to better recognize and assess the dangers that climate change poses to the continued endurance of human history. The efforts started by the IPCC led to solid results such as the later establishment of the Climate Change Heritage Working Group of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) which, in 2020, officially declared a climate emergency with regard to archaeological, historical, and cultural resources around the world.

The work that scholars around the world continue to do to raise awareness of this additional danger that the climate crisis poses to our species has also garnered much attention in both academic spheres and mainstream media. Yet, like everything else dependent upon progress made in the fight against climate change, real change is required elsewhere for our efforts to see true and lasting impact.

Until substantial and immediate action is taken in areas that will help root out the source of the problem (i.e. government policies and the curbing of oil consumption across myriad sectors of the commercial world) solutions can only be sought out at smaller and more local scales. As is evident by how many communities have individually been able to successfully curb the onslaught of a warmer world, the task is a rather daunting one. To protect our collective past and ensure that our historical narratives have a place in our future, we must continue to call for action against the climate crisis by demanding meaningful and immediate changes to how our world operates. If we continue neglecting to do so, then some of the greatest achievements of the human race are at risk of disappearing altogether.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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