Climate Change Impacts on Cultural Heritage

According to UNESCO's definition of "cultural heritage," the term applies to several categories. First of all, there is the tangible cultural heritage, with the movable goods like paintings, coins, sculptures, and manuscripts. Secondly, there is the immovable cultural heritage, with the archaeological sites and monuments. Comprising the underwater cultural heritage with the underwater ruins, cities, and shipwrecks. Finally, there is the intangible cultural heritage, which concludes the oral traditions, performing arts, and rituals. In a few words, cultural heritage is the legacy of our past that lends a sense of place, identity, and aesthetic wellbeing to local communities. These heritage assets have always been and will continue to interact with their environment. Climate change is a supplementary potential threat as it worsens the expected rates of corruption while contributing to the appearance of new decay phenomena.

J. Leonard. (2018). The Optical Illusion that Makes the Parthenon Perfect. [Photograph].
J. Leonard. (2018). The Optical Illusion that Makes the Parthenon Perfect. [Photograph].

Climatic changes may increase the physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms causing relegation by affecting the structure and the synthesis of the affected materials. Also, climate change is possible to influence the frequency and strength of hazardous events such as droughts and floods. Last but not least, climate change affects the sea level. As a consequence, cultural heritage is in danger from Sea Level Rise and the shifts in the force of storm surges. Those climate changes have linked impacts on coastal erosion and potential floodings. For these reasons, in the last years, there has been a growing body of research reviewing the impacts and the consequences of these climatic stressors. Furthermore, it is examined how the governments and the competent authorities should act to protect their countries' cultural heritage. Cultural and natural heritage is increasingly vulnerable to the opposing environmental effects of global climate change. This situation is a fact that cannot be disputed anymore. Thus, back in 2019, the Greek Government, deeply concerned about this issue that they organized an International Scientific Conference, in Athens. More than 300 scientists participated, representing over 40 countries (Climate change impacts on cultural heritage: facing the challenge, 2019). The conference aimed to inform humanity about environmental protection and climate change. Pointing to the need to expand the scientific dialog among the scholars over the protection of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. While attracting financial resources, the Conference’s conclusions were circulated as an official document of the UN General Assembly.

A. Busiello. (2021). This is how Italy is protecting its underwater cultural heritage. [Photograph].   Getty Images.
A. Busiello. (2021). This is how Italy is protecting its underwater cultural heritage. [Photograph]. Getty Images.

During the conference, great emphasis was placed on the presentation of many worrying scenarios about the preservation of cultural heritage. Flooding is one of the most important consequences of climate change for cultural heritage in Europe. According to Vasiliki Argyropoulou (professor of the department of preservation of antiquities and works of art and diver), climate change in the Mediterranean will dramatically affect the degree of erosion of underwater monuments. In some decades, it is estimated that a shallow-water erosion will happen as well as, a withdrawal of benthic species. Those marine species, such as the seagrass, act as protection for submerged sites. As a consequence, further increasing erosion will affect the balance - that is needed- for the preservation of the underwater heritage. Moreover, the rise of the sea level may increase the frequency of extreme events, such as storms. This situation, will affect the ground balance in coastal sites and so, the stability of underwater archeological sites and monuments.

Climate change is a problem also for building interiors. Dr. Johanna Leissner, a chemist on behalf of the Fraunhofer research organization, referred to the consequences of climate change in the museum collections. Museums host a variety of collections, both organic and inorganic, often located in historical buildings, that in some cases, lacking modern climate control measures. She underlines the need to spot how the new climatic circumstances affect the storage conditions of the exhibits. As an example, she referred to the National Museum of Krakow. Every year more than 600,000 euros are spent on proper air conditioning for the maintenance of the right humidity levels. It is important to hit the emissions of harmful gases to reduce costs and protect cultural goods. Following a hypothetical scenario based on current data, scientists believe that by 2100, humanity will have a level of humidity that affects the interior of the museum. The scientific team applied hydrothermal simulation models and tested the corrosion on wooden statues and paintings. They found out that in any case, there is a major risk of corrosion of the wooden cultural goods by moisture, mold, or heat-loving insects.

R. Pogrebin. (2019). Clean House to Survive? Museums Confront their Basements. [Photograph].   New York Times.
R. Pogrebin. (2019). Clean House to Survive? Museums Confront their Basements. [Photograph]. New York Times.

Monuments such as the Parthenon standing at the top of Acropolis hill, in the city center of Athens, seeing the impact of extreme weather and air pollution. Culture ministry general secretary Maria Vlazaki said, “The walls of the (ancient) city have more erosion than in the past,". According to Vlazaki, “Every year, we have more cases… We give more money, unexpected money to protect the walls of the (ancient) cities that had no problems before, to protect the coastal area”. (Zappeion, 21-22 June 2019) Damages have been observed on the outer surface of the marble as well as "plastering" by moisture. Even if the air pollution seems to have decreased in the last years, the competent authorities have to work systematically in the reporting, maintenance, and restoration of the ancient sites. Just like Parthenon, there are hundreds of ancient monuments around the globe facing the same issues. Climate change is a threat to cultural heritage. In order to recognize, monitor, assess, and address such threats, a wide variety of scientific disciplines are needed. In reports published over a decade ago, UNESCO mentioned the need for more research on such impacts.

References :

Climate Change Impacts on Cultural Heritage: facing the challenge. (2019, June 21-22).

E. Sesana, A. Gagnon, C. Ciantelli, J. Cassar, J. Hughes. (2020, March 31). Climate Change Impacts on Cultural Heritage: A literature review. WILEY.

M. Paravantes. (2019, June 17). Ancient Greek Monuments Facing Climate Change Impact. GTP.

What is meant by "cultural heritage". UNESCO. (2019, June 21). Επιπτώσεις της κλιματικής αλλαγής στην πολιτιστική κληρονομιά.

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Anna-Aikaterini Bati

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