World Heritage Sites Among Many Cultural Resources Threatened by Climate Change

, , deputy director, Climate & Energy Program | November 12, 2014, 11:00 am EDT
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The last time I attended a World Parks Congress, 20 years ago in Venezuela, there was scarcely a mention of climate change. Back then, it was seen by conservationists as largely a problem they would have to deal with in the future. Well I’m sorry to say that the future is here, and so are the consequences of climate change. At the 6th World Parks Congress, beginning today in Sydney, Australia, there will be more than 50 workshops, panels and events focusing on climate impacts, adaptation, and resilience. Organized by IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) the World Parks Congress only comes around once every decade, and when it does it brings together more than 4,000 of the world’s top conservation biologists and ecologists along with protected areas managers and international conservation NGOs. The U.S. takes this meeting very seriously. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis are both here.

World Heritage Sites at risk

Part of the Neolithic village at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands. Photo: Webber

Part of the Neolithic village at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands. Photo: Webber

I’m in Sydney representing UCS as a follow-up to the launch of the ground-breaking “Landmarks At Risk” report that we published in May highlighting the risk that so many U.S. historic places and archaeological sites face from climate change. We’re collaborating with the U.S. National Park Service, and holding a workshop this week to draw attention to climate impacts on cultural heritage resources at the international level. Although there are 50 workshops on climate here, there are only two dealing with cultural heritage, and ours is one of them.

The overwhelming emphasis at the meeting is on biodiversity and natural ecosystems, but almost all the national protected area systems represented here are also responsible for historic and cultural site preservation. Even if you only consider UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, a large number of those listed for their cultural values are already being impacted by, or are vulnerable to, climate impacts such as sea level rise, drought, wildfires, extreme rainfall events, or melting ice.

Cultural World Heritage sites at risk include Venice and its lagoon in Italy, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta (Ayer’s Rock) cultural landscape in Australia, the 19th Century whaling settlements of Canada’s Herschel island, the great mosques of Timbuktu, and ancient pueblo remains in Mesa Verde National Park in the U.S.

Climate change and cultural heritage workshop 

Aboriginal rock art in Australia's Kakadu National Park. Photo: Luke Durkin

Aboriginal rock art in Australia’s Kakadu National Park. Photo: Luke Durkin

We are very lucky to have an extraordinary group of experts presenting at the UCS workshop here in Sydney:

  • Marcy Rockman coordinates cultural resource adaptation strategies for the U.S. National Park Service. She has been instrumental in the Park Service’s development of innovative new policies on preserving cultural heritage in a changing climate, and on learning the lessons of past human responses to climatic disruption.
  • Peter Brimblecombe, now of the City University of Hong Kong, is an atmospheric chemist who wrote a long-time favorite book of mine – The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times – but more recently co-authored the European Union’s Atlas of Climate Impact on European Cultural Heritage, and is a leading authority on preserving built heritage in a changing climate.
  • Tom Dawson at St. Andrews University works to document and assess vulnerability of at risk coastal archaeological sites in Scotland. He is a leading proponent of public engagement in archaeology and has been involved in efforts to protect the famous Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae in Orkney (another World Heritage Site) from coastal erosion.
  • Anastasia Steffen is the Cultural Resources Coordinator at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. She is an expert in stone tools and obsidian quarries and has been doing pioneering work to understand the impacts of worsening wildfires in the Southwest and their implications for management and preservation of archaeological resources.
  • Emma Ligtermoet is a PhD student at the Australian National University and is studying the impacts of climate change in aboriginal culture in Kakadu National Park. She has surveyed customary harvesting of natural resources for food and cultural purposes in order to contribute to joint-management between indigenous people and the government in discussions about adaptive capacity in these northern territory wetlands.

I’m excited to bring these cutting-edge researchers together in Sydney, and in doing so, catalyze a much-needed international discussion about preserving cultural heritage in a changing climate change. I’ll be sending more dispatches from the World Parks Congress, so watch this space.

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