- Rising sea levels, climbing global temperatures, and extreme weather conditions have scientists concerned about the fate of the world’s landmarks.
- A group of researchers recently developed a Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) that helps determine which World Heritage Sites face the most precarious future.
- Landmarks that are in danger include the Great Barrier Reef, Statue of Liberty, and the entire city of Venice, Italy.
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Less than a year ago, the United Nations made some scary predictions about our planet’s future. If global temperatures rose to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, they said, the world could experience “irreversible” damage, including the collapse of coral reefs, the fall of ice sheets in Antarctica, and the forced retreat of coastal cities.
That catastrophic scenario would be years away, but we already have some insight into how it might affect our world’s most precious landmarks.
Read more: The climate crisis is inherently unfair. These 9 countries will get hit especially hard as the globe heats up.
Many World Heritage Sites – landmarks that have been determined to have major significance for humanity – have sustained recent damage from floods, wildfires, and rising sea levels. Researchers from James Cook University and the Union of Concerned Scientists believe that climate change is now the fastest-growing global threat to these properties.
To figure out which sites face the most precarious future, the researchers developed a Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) that considers how climate change might diminish the value of a World Heritage Site and impact its surrounding community.
Take a look at the landmarks that are in danger.
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is known worldwide for its colorful medley of coral.
The Great Barrier Reef, which actually consists of 2,500 individual reefs, became a World Heritage Site in 1981. According to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which determines heritage sites, the reef boasts "some of the most spectacular maritime scenery in the world."
But its coral is being "bleached" by warmer temperatures.
Warmer temperatures can induce "coral bleaching," a process in which algae leaves coral tissue, causing the organism to become pale or white. While the coral may eventually regain its color, the likelihood of survival tends to decline as more algae leaves the nest.
In 2016, coral bleaching caused by a nine-month heatwave killed off 30% of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef.
The Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies is the most visited glacier in North America.
Glaciers are a key part of the beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, a World Heritage Site. Before it started shrinking, the site's Athabasca Glacier looked like a mesmerizing waterfall cascading down the mountain.
The glacier has lost half its volume in the last 125 years.
Rising temperatures have caused more snow to melt before it turns to ice, prompting the Athabasca Glacier to become shorter and skinnier. From around 1892 to 2017, the glacier lost half its volume and receded by about a mile.
Read more: One of Antarctica's biggest glaciers will soon reach a point of irreversible melting. That would cause sea levels to rise at least 1.6 feet.
The Skara Brae settlement in Scotland has stood for more than 5,000 years.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a World Heritage Site, consists of a collection of stone circles, burial sites, a settlement, and a chambered tomb. One of these key monuments, a stone settlement called Skara Brae, sits just a few miles away from the coast of Scotland.
Its land is eroding due to sea level rise.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) chose Skara Brae as a test case for its Climate Vulnerability Index in April. After studying the area for a few days, the group determined that the monument - as well as the entire Heart of Neolithic Orkney - had one of the highest climate risks among World Heritage Sites.
Skara Brae's location makes it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, which has started to erode the coastline on the Orkney Islands. UNESCO has identified coastal erosion as "physical threat" to the landmark.
The area also witnesses frequent and intense storms, according to the scientists at UCS.
Humans have likely inhabited the Tasmanian Wilderness in Australia for more than 20,000 years.
The Tasmanian Wilderness was designated as World Heritage Site in 1989. Today, it's one of the last remaining temperate wildernesses in the world.
In 2019, fires scorched 495,000 acres of the land.
Drought conditions led to about 80 small wildfires in the wilderness in January 2016. The fires ultimately burned around 245,000 acres. Three years later, another set of fires charred almost 495,000 acres of wilderness.
The fires endangered the land's thousand-year-old King Billy pines, which are native to the region.
The UN considers Venice, Italy, an "architectural masterpiece."
Venice is the birthplace of celebrated painters, architectural techniques, and historical monuments. One of the highlights of the heritage site is St. Mark's Square, a public space that dates back to the ninth century.
At the end of 2018, three-quarters of the city was submerged in water.
Venice has been no stranger to flooding over the last century, but its floods have become more frequent as of late. The city now floods more than 60 times a year and is on track to be underwater by 2100.
In 2018, a series of devastating storms toppled trees and flooded tourist attractions like St. Mark's Square. By the end of the storm, at least 11 people were dead and three-quarters of the city was submerged.
Read more: A $6.5 billion sea wall was supposed to stop Venice from flooding. Now, most of the city is underwater.
New York's Statue of Liberty has long stood as a symbol of progress.
Both the statue and its torch were designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who drew inspiration from sixteen different female figures, including the Roman goddess Libertas and Columbia, a feminine symbol for America. UNESCO has referred to the statue as a "masterpiece of the human spirit."
But its home, Liberty Island, was torn apart by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Hurricane Sandy flooded 75% of statue's home on Liberty Island. Lady Liberty managed to escape damage due to her height, but the storm tore away at island's pier, railings, and infrastructure.
Read more: The Statue of Liberty has been missing its original 3,600-pound torch for 35 years. We got a look at the warped copper flame.
By 2100, sea level rise could put the land underwater.
The statue's 154-foot-tall pedestal may keep it from getting soaked, but the rest of Liberty Island could be submerged by the end of the century.