Sea Level Rise Will Sink Hundreds of Historic Cultural Sites

The Statue of Liberty, the Tower of London, and all of Venice are doomed.

Mar 5 2014, 12:00am
Image: Steve McGhee, from the series "Recipe for Disaster."

Over the course of several thousand years, humankind decided to make its most important settlements near the coasts. That means there’s a disproportionate amount of important cultural history hanging out near the oceans, and it's looking increasingly likely that much of it is going to get washed away by the rising sea level. 

According to a new analysis published in Environmental Research Letters, roughly 136 of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 720 World Heritage Sites, including the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, the Tower of London, and much of Riga, Naples, Venice, and St. Petersburg, will be underwater within the next 2000 years. That's assuming just a 3-degree Celsius temperature increase over that time period (a full list of the sites is available in the paper).

Yes, that’s an incredibly long timescale (and let's be real—if the Statue of Liberty and the Sidney Opera House are underwater, we've got more to worry about than some historical landmarks). But when you think about how long some of these things have been around, it’s kind of disheartening. And, because we’re already facing a potential 2-degree Celsius temperature increase by the end of the century, all of this could be significantly sped up.

"After 2000 years, the oceans would have reached a new equilibrium state and we can compute the ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica from physical models,” said Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and coauthor of the study. “At the same time, we consider 2000 years a short enough time to be of relevance for the cultural heritage we cherish."

That leaves us with a few options. We can try our best to slow down carbon emissions and hope we haven't already done enough damage to ruin most of these sites, or we can watch them sink.

In a 2008 report on the subject, Brown University researcher Michelle Berenfeld said we need to divide our cultural landmarks into three categories. “It is time for the cultural heritage community—together with governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders—to make some hard decisions," Berenfeld said. "One way to do this would be to undertake a sort of ‘triage’ for cultural heritage, in which three main categories of sites are identified": 

  • Sites that are doomed.
  • Sites that are so important that we are willing to save them at almost any cost
  • Sites that could be saved if we plan ahead and consider climate change in conservation efforts.
  • For those sites that are doomed, we must accept these losses rather than invest time and money in them … we need to stop trying to shore up doomed places and start documenting them now, or else we will lose them from history forever.”

Bleak stuff. 

UNESCO has been listening. Back in 2006, Koichiro Matsuura, then-director general of UNESCO said climate would destroy certain sites

World Heritage cultural sites are also exposed to [climate change]. Ancient buildings were designed for specific local climates. Increasing sea level threatens numerous coastal sites. The migration of pests can also have an adverse impact on the conservation of built heritage,” he said. “But aside from these principal physical threats, climate change will also have tremendous impact on social and cultural aspects, with communities changing the way they live, work, worship and socialize in buildings, sites and landscapes, possibly leading to migration and the abandonment of their built heritage altogether.”

As a result of a meeting on the subject, the World Heritage Committee officially asked UN members to implement “strategies to protect the outstanding universal value, integrity, and authenticity of World Heritage sites from the adverse effects of climate change, to the extent possible.” 

UNESCO also has a set of natural heritage sites that are perhaps at more immediate risk from climate change. If London and New York City are going to be underwater, then there’s probably little that can be done to protect vulnerable coral reefs and tropical rain forests. 

There is one silver lining to all of this: If it goes down, it’ll give future humans plenty of scuba diving and underwater tourist trap opportunities.