We tend to think of cultural heritage sites as needing preservation against the threat of direct human over-development, but a new online initiative, Heritage on the Edge, hosted by Google Arts & Culture, serves to highlight the ways in which climate change poses a visceral threat to five existing UNESCO heritage sites. These sites represent a mere cross-section of places of great cultural importance being affected by climate change (for example, new predictions on when Venice will become Atlantis).
Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island) is home to a set of astonishing stone Moai statues, which have captured the global imagination for centuries, in spite of the island’s remote location. While the provenance of some of these statues remains a battleground for bitter debates on historic colonial practices, those that remain sited on Rapa Nui now face another kind of threat: that of rising sea levels. The page focused on this site presents stunning footage of the statues and landscape, detailed information about Rapa Nui indigenous culture and history, 3D recreations of the statues, and an overview of current efforts to stabilize the climate threat to the island and its living and statuary occupants.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, the capital’s Castle Rock has hosted a structure built for royalty since at least the 12th Century. Edinburgh Castle has undergone shifts in architecture and political importance over the centuries, but it remains a historic landmark of great significance, host to the Scottish regalia, the Scottish National War Memorial and Museum, and is Scotland’s most-visited paid tourist attraction. Now, erosion accelerated by frequent rains threatens not only the castle on the rock above the city but many of the historical buildings in operation in the oldest parts of the city. According to statistics cited by Google Arts and Culture from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), Scotland’s annual rainfall has increased by 13% since 1970. Edinburgh can expect increasing issues with its outdated stormwater management systems, and increased rates of decay as the rainwater and shifts in temperature mobilizes once-static elements of the ancient sandstone composition of its structures.
Water, water, everywhere. Ancient mosques in the river delta city of Bagerhat, Bangladesh are scrambling to deal with rising flood plains that create salinity issues and water damage, beginning to encroach on medieval structures of Khalifatabad, the Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat, that have stood for 600 years. Unchecked, there is debate over whether this city, home to 360 structures (and the surrounding Bagerhat district, home to some 1.5 million), will survive another 600 years.
Meanwhile, in Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, ruins are threatened with ruin. The Swahili coastal city was a major trade center and sultans amassed great riches through trade on the Eastern coast of Africa. Like many ocean-facing cities, Kilwa Kisiwani now lives under the constant challenges posed by erosion and rising sea levels to historic structures like Gereza Fort and the Great Mosque — the oldest standing mosque on the East African coast.
Holding on in the face of washout, protectors of the mudbrick metropolis of Chan Chan, Peru are in a scramble against erosion. Once the capital of the Chimú Empire and home to 40,000 citizens, the sprawling earthen architecture anchored an ancient empire that stretched from southern Peru to Ecuador. Increased precipitation driven by El Niño weather trends in the Pacific Ocean is causing wear on the city’s adobe architecture and raising the water table at the site, even as less coastal parts of Peru face drought conditions and look to their ancient cities for survival tactics.
In all cases, Heritage on the Edge highlights the efforts being made to preserve aspects of cultural importance to underscore the wider problems posed by climate change to contemporary structures and populations. Those who live in conditions relatively sheltered from the current threats cropping up along coastlines worldwide — and lack the basic empathy to understand climate change as an issue affecting everyone, even when it’s not flooding our personal doorstep — can perhaps be motivated by an understanding that the rising tide is not just washing away marginalized and distant populations; it threatens the entire global history of human civilization, as well as our future.