Sea level rise threatens our cultural heritage too

When it comes to our rising seas, we often think of the impending loss of the spaces in which we live our lives. Beachside cities and towns are poised to lose in a big way as their streets and highways give way to beaches and waterways. We also think of the lost space for wildlife. As the amount of dry land decreases, humans will increasingly compete with animals for the use of that space, even more than we already do. But it isn’t just our infrastructure that will be flooded. Our cultural heritage may wash away along with it.

Researchers Ben Marzeion and Anders Levermann wondered what rising sea levels would mean for the 720 places that UNESCO has identified as world cultural heritage sites. They point out that most socioeconomic projections related to sea level rise are limited to the next hundred years, which is about as far as we can reasonably plan. “[But] cultural heritage,” they write, “needs to be considered on a longer time scale when informing societal decisions.”

Rather than projecting forward for one hundred years, they imagined a world 2000 years from now, and report the results in Environmental Research Letters. If the current climate change trend continues, temperatures will increase some 3°C above pre-industrial levels two centuries from now. That will put some 1.1% of land surface, and 7% of the global population, that is currently above sea level underwater. And the distribution of that affected population won’t be uniform: sixty percent of displaced people will be in China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Since human civilization has historically clustered along coastlines, rising waters will disproportionately affect UNESCO heritage sites. While only 1.1% of land will be affected in the next 2000 years, 19% of UNESCO cultural heritage sites will be. That’s approximately 136 places around the world considered to be of “outstanding value to humanity.”

That includes the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Tower of London and Sydney Opera House. Also underwater will be the Port and Fortresses of Cartagena, the old city of Dubrovnik, and the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel. In Italy alone, the archaeological sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum, almost the entire cities of Pisa and Naples, and the whole Venetian lagoon will be flooded.

Ecologists and others are already used to thinking in terms of wildlife conservation, conservation of water and energy, and so on. But this research suggests that we ought to be thinking about cultural conservation as well. While borne out of some complex mathematical modeling, the conclusions of this study are actually quite straightforward. “Future generations will face either loss of these sites, or considerable efforts to protect them,” write Marzeion and Levermann. – Jason G. Goldman | 12 March 2014

Source: Marzeion B. & Levermann A. (2014). Loss of cultural world heritage and currently inhabited places to sea-level rise, Environmental Research Letters, 9 (3) 034001. DOI:

Header image: Sydney Opera House at night via Wikimedia Commons/Anthony Winning. Perhaps in 2000 years, entering it will require a snorkel.