Got Science? Podcast | Episode 59 Can the World’s Natural and Cultural Wonders Survive Climate Change?

May 21, 2019

Adam Markham takes us on a tour of World Heritage Sites threatened by a warming world.

In this episode Adam talks about:

  • Natural and human made locations at risk from climate change
  • How we can assess an area's climate vulnerability
  • Tough decisions we'll have to make about places that we might have to let go
  • Viking graffiti

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-0:57)
  • Intro (0:57-3:02)
  • Interview Part 1 (3:02-14:12)
  • Break (14:12-14:54)
  • Interview Part 2 (14:54-23:50)
  • This Week in Science History throw (23:50-23:55)
  • This Week in Science History (23:55-27:21)
  • Outro (27:21-28:30)

Full Transcript

Colleen: Adam, welcome to the podcast.

Adam: Thank you.

Colleen: So I'm detecting a little note in your accent. It doesn't sound like a typical Connecticut accent.

Adam: Oh no, I'm originally from London, but I've been in the States for 25 years. So whenever I go back to the U.K. people think I have an American accent.

Colleen: So you were just back from Scotland literally two days ago, where there was an important workshop.

Adam: Yes. So we were in Scotland to organize a workshop, a technical workshop at the World Heritage Site in the Orkney Islands. So the Orkney Islands are right off the north of Scotland, that's on the way to Scandinavia, and Norway. And they have an amazing World Heritage Site which is called the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, which has archaeological sites going back over 5,000 years.

So we were there to look at how climate change is affecting the archaeology and the sites. And have a workshop to assess the future likely impacts of climate change, and try to determine the risk. And in doing that, we were testing a new tool, which the UCS has been helping to develop called the climate vulnerability index, which we hope can help us do rapid assessments for World Heritage Sites around the world, including in the U.S.

Colleen: How does the climate vulnerability index test work?

Adam: Well, you get a bunch of experts and stakeholders in a room for a couple of days, and you work through some worksheets and choices. So first of all, we were looking at the different kinds of climate drivers that might affect World Heritage Sites and archaeological site. And then we narrowed that down to the three that would be the most impactful. And we spent most of the rest of the workshop talking about how those types of impacts which included increased precipitation, rainfall, storms, and sea level rise, would affect the site. And so what would that mean for tourism at the site? What would it mean for the physical fabric of the site? What would it mean for the farmers and the people who live around the site?

Colleen: So were you actually using the site there, Skara Brae, as the test site?

Adam: Yes, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney has four prehistoric sites. The most famous is Skara Brae which is the best preserved Neolithic or Stone Age village in Western Europe. There's also the Ring of Brodgar, which is an amazing stone circle. So if you think of Stonehenge, it's in that kind of category. In fact, Stonehenge may have got the idea from Orkney and the Ring of Brodgar. The culture may actually have moved south rather than as many people think, north.

And then there's a chamber tomb called Maeshowe, which was built several thousand years ago. But a few hundred years ago, the Vikings broke into it and left lots of rooms and graffiti. So it's an amazing piece of prehistoric architecture, but it's also full of a fantastic collection of Viking graffiti.

Colleen: Tell me a little bit more about sort of the specifics of this site and how the tests will unfold?

Adam: So the idea is that in a three day period, you can work through all of these impacts and at the end, you come out with a table which says, okay, what's the exposure and sensitivity to climate change for the site? And what's the adaptive capacity? So are there resources available to try and do something about those impacts? Is there money that will be able to help build a seawall? And if there's not many resources, as there aren't in many parts of the world, then the adaptive capacity is low. You come out with a score, an overall score. And then the idea is that we'll be able to compare the score for this site with sites all around the world.

So what we're trying to do is get to a point where there's a comparable index for all World Heritage Sites, which just doesn't exist right now. So we know that many World Heritage Sites, and there are 23 in the U.S., most of the national parks, are affected by climate change, but there haven't been any studies which say, well, what's the state of World Heritage as a whole? There are more than 1,100 sort of cream of the crop sites that are around the world.

Colleen: So how did these four sites fare? What was their score?

Adam: They came out as very high vulnerability, which is what we expected because we know that they're already eroding...

Colleen: They're eroding and they're also close to...they're on the ocean, is that right?

Adam: Yeah, one of them, Skara Brae, is on the ocean. The others are suffering from flooding, and worsening storms, and from increased precipitation. So just like in the northeast United States, heavy rainfall has increased over the last few decades in Scotland. So heavy rainfall is now sort of 25% more prevalent and predicted to get worse in Scotland.

Colleen: give me a few examples of some of the more famous World Heritage Sites?

Adam: Yeah, I mean, there are places everybody's gonna have heard of, it's Venice, the center of London, Paris is a World Heritage city. The Statue of Liberty is a World Heritage Site. Yellowstone National Park and Chaco Canyon are both national...well, they're national parks, but they're also World Heritage Sites, the Great Barrier Reef. So the thing about World Heritage is that it includes both cultural sites so you would say Statue of Liberty is a cultural site, and natural sites like the Great Barrier Reef.

And one of the reasons we've been looking at the issue of an index is because you might think of...there's a way to look at natural sites and say, yeah, the Great Barrier Reef, it's affected by coral bleaching and warm water temperatures. But how do you compare that with a cultural side? And our CVI methodology enables you to compare apples with apples rather than apples with oranges.

Colleen: Adam, summer is right around the corner, people are making their travel plans, with climate change in mind, what are the top 5, 7, 10 places that are on your bucket list to visit?

Adam: Well, you know, I have visited Yellowstone National Park several times, and I hope I'll also get to visit it again this year. I mean, it's one of my favorite World Heritage Sites. Many people probably don't know that it's a World Heritage Site, but it's you know, it's a fantastic National Park. They probably also don't know that it's quite severely being impacted by climate change. It will always be an amazing large scale ecosystem, but that ecosystem is going to change as a result of things that are happening from climate.

Colleen: What's happening?

Adam: Well, some of the...the snow is melting earlier, which is changing streamflow. Temperature is increasing throughout the park as it is in that part of the United States. The risk of fire is greater, and the fires are becoming more intense throughout the West and the fire season is longer. So some of these forests when they burn in Yellowstone, they won't grow back with the same species of tree. They may turn into grassland, for example. They may not even be forests when they come back.

And then we're also losing a high elevation species, the whitebark pine, much of which has died out because of mountain pine beetles attacking those forests because we have warmer winters, which allows the beetles to survive more successfully, and sometimes have two populations in one year, and they're destroying these trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. And the key in that ecosystem is that the whitebark pine provides a pine nut, which is a vital food supply for the grizzly bear population of Yellowstone National Park. So indirectly, climate change is affecting the grizzly bears through the death of trees, which provide one of their key foods in times of food scarcity.

Colleen: Give me another one of your top places.

Adam: Well, another one is the Sydney Opera House. An incredible piece of architecture, 20th-century architecture, it's a World Heritage Site. You wouldn't probably think that anything about it would be affected by climate change. But in fact, the changing sea temperature may change the damage rate to the wooden pilings that the structure is built on. But I just recently heard also that the acoustics internally on the wall are driven by a particular kind of wood paneling, which comes from what's called white birch.

It's not a birch as we know it. It's actually a tropical forest species that grows only in parts of Australia. And that tropical forest species may well be impacted by climate change. And so you have to think about what are these slightly less tangible impacts. So the sound quality in the Sydney Opera House may be affected if we can't replace the wood paneling inside because the tree has disappeared.

Colleen: So what else is on your list?

Adam: Well, I think another U.S. site that I love is Chaco Canyon. And there's a different sort of energy issue with Chaco Canyon. It's probably not that sensitive to climate change because it's in a pretty dry desert already. And so when it gets warmer and drier, there will be impact, but probably not huge. Chaco Canyon has these incredible what they call great houses, which are remains of the Chaco Pueblo, ancient Pueblo culture.

But it's now being encroached on by oil drilling and fracking, and there are thousands of wells around the Chaco National Park. And under this administration, you know, the drive for increasing drilling on public lands is also threatening national parks. And so on the one side, there's the climate impact, and on the other side, there's the demand for energy and drilling impacts. And so Chaco Canyon is one that's a great risk from that.

Colleen: How about international sites?

Adam: Well, a place that I've always wanted to go is called Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania on the coast. It's not a very big site, but it's sort of a confluence of Arab and African trading, and a place where Islam came into Africa through the trading routes. There's an 11th-century mosque there, and there's a lot of buildings from the 9th century right the way through to sort of colonial times in the 18th and 19th centuries.

And it's right on the coast, it's poorly resourced, so they don't have a lot of funds to maintain the buildings. And it's highly susceptible to sea level rise and storms, pulling away bits of the foundations and rocks and such like. And so that's one of those places that if we don't do something fairly soon about it, much of it will be destroyed by sea level rise and storms.


Colleen: Aside from sea level rise, drought, fire, are there places that are being affected by climate change in unexpected ways?

Adam: So in Arizona, there's an adobe built, colonial mission called Tumacácori. And so many people probably don't think of that much is how much maintenance it takes to maintain adobe buildings. You have to...probably most years you have to be putting new mud and plaster on.

And the National Park Service spends a lot of money doing that, and we know they're under-resourced for their maintenance. But Tumacácori has recently been damaged by heavy rainfall. And so the increase in maintenance needs plus extreme rainfall events damages adobe buildings. So that's one less thought of kind of impact.

Outside of the U.S. a place that is quite interesting from a climate point of view, it's called the Cape Floral Region. So it's in South Africa, the bottom tip of South Africa. It's one of the world's most rich area for endemic plants and a lot of species of insects like ants that are involved in pollinating and birds that are attached to particular species.

And so that area is experiencing much less rainfall, so it's getting drier there, and you also have a problem with increasing wildfires. But the temperature change, the drying, and the wildfires are going to just make it not possible for many of the plant species that it's known for to survive there.

Colleen: Of all the U.S. sites that are under risk, which are the most protectable? In other words, if we reduce emissions to the levels we need, which ones might be around for our grandchildren if we do something now?

Adam: I don't wanna be an alarmist and say we're gonna lose all of these sites, but many of them will be very severely damaged. And we've talked in the past at UCS about Jamestown in Virginia, this is one of the sites of the beginning of colonial America. And it's just a couple of meters above sea level. And so water is already coming up into the archaeological works. There's erosion on the James River.

So Jamestown will get smaller over time and bits of it will be destroyed and disappear. But many sites particularly more inland that are not threatened by sea level rise or storms, are more likely to survive. And we're gonna have to make choices. The National Park Service is gonna have to decide how to spend its budget. Is it gonna move buildings back like Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved a couple of decades ago? The U.S. government had to spend $100 million restoring the infrastructure of the Statue of Liberty after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

So if you imagine the kind of money that we will have to spend to maintain and restore both buildings and natural ecosystems that have been damaged by climate change, the resource need is huge, and we're clearly not gonna have those resources. So the National Park Service and people who live in the communities around parks, will have to start talking about what we're sort of saying, learning to live with loss. What are you going to lose? And what does it mean? You'll have memories but the attachment to place will be gone for some people.

So we're gonna have to learn to live in a different way. Things don't stay as they are. Of course, the more we do to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, the less of those kinds of choices we will have to make.

Colleen: So what about Angkor Wat in Cambodia? This is on my list of places that I'd like to visit.

Adam: Yeah, that's a very interesting one. Angkor Wat is a World Heritage Site. It's a very highly visited World Heritage Site. And it's on a fairly high water table, so there's a real risk that climate change, if it involves more water coming into the area, could increase flooding, and erosion from flooding at Angkor Wat. However, we don't really know. There's not much peer-reviewed literature if any out there about climate change in Angkor Wat. And so it's a good example of the kind of place that we would want to go in and do a CVI analysis to find out what the vulnerability is because right now, I can guess, but I can't tell you.

Colleen: We need that CVI, we need the climate vulnerability index to sort of put everything in kind of perspective.

Adam: Yes, we do. And that's why we've been working to try to develop it. And we will be taking the results from the Orkney workshop to the World Heritage Committee meeting this summer, which is in Baku, Azerbaijan.

And the idea is to get the World Heritage Committee, which is the group of governments that's really the sort of the government secretariat for the World Heritage Convention to get them to start to recognize the need for the CVI. And eventually, our aim is for it to be adopted by the World Heritage Committee. But that's gonna take more examples and the kind of advocacy that UCS is so good at doing.

Colleen: Another place I am definitely planning to visit is Nepal, not this summer, but probably within the next couple of years. What do I need to be aware of there?

Adam: Well, the Himalayas of Nepal and India, are high mountain areas and so the tops of the Himalayas are unlikely to get so warm that the ice near the top is gonna melt. But lower down the glaciers in the valleys and Sagarmāthā National Park in Nepal is a World Heritage Site, and people are really worried about the changes in the ice melt lower down there. Because what happens is you get these melting glacial lakes building up high up above the villages and communities, and if they overflow or flood, then whole communities can be washed away.

Also, the water from the Himalayas is vital water for many, many communities way down hundreds of miles away for their drinking water supply. So if you lose that ice over time, then rivers will start to dry. So this combination of local danger from lake overflow, and then eventual loss of water is something that's happening in mountain regions all over the world, but especially in the Himalayas.

Colleen: Adam, if you were to take all the presidential candidates, Republicans, and Democrats, independents on a road trip to one historical site that will be affected by climate change, where would you take them?

Adam: Oh, one site to take the presidential candidates, I think I would probably take them to Yellowstone. And we talked about Yellowstone. It's iconic in the United States. It's iconic worldwide. And the changes are kind of subtle. I think if you took them to Glacier National Park where the glaciers are melting, they kind of would expect it. You took them to the Florida Everglades, also a World Heritage Site, and you would see sea level rise affecting the mangroves, again, they would expect it.

But I think most people would be surprised at the number of ways in which climate change is subtly changing Yellowstone, from the wildfires, to the wetlands, to the grasslands, to the forests, the grizzly bears. And I think they would be shocked by the number of ways in which this iconic ecosystem is under threat.

Colleen: How would you keep them in line on the bus?

Adam: I would issue them with earphones and make them listen to a UCS podcasts, and they would come out much better informed at the end of it.

Colleen: I like that. Good answer.

Adam: Yes, I thought so.

Colleen: So Adam, how do you sleep at night with all of this knowledge about everything that's happening?

Adam: Well, I'm sleeping less well than I used to because the problem is getting worse. But I do think, you know, we at UCS are trying to do something about it, and so that keeps me going and positive. And you know, frankly, as a scientist, it's interesting to learn and understand these things. And by understanding them, then perhaps we have a hope of changing.

Colleen: Well Adam, thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk to me. I think our listeners will have some good ideas for what to put on the top of their list.

Adam: That’s great. Thank you very much, I enjoyed it.

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This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald