July 2, 2019

New World Heritage Sites to be Announced

New System Proposed to Help Protect Sites from Devastating Climate Change Damages

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN (July 2, 2019)—The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee will announce new World Heritage sites at its 43rd session in Baku, Azerbaijan, which began this week. 

“Sites of great natural and cultural significance will receive this designation, including, we expect, a group of eight Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the United States, among them Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City,” said Adam Markham, the deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “But the elephant in the room is climate change. UNESCO is adding sites to the list, but we don’t know whether they, or even the existing World Heritage sites, will be able to withstand the rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons that climate change is bringing.”  

To that end, Markham and scientists at James Cook University (JCU), in Queensland, Australia, have developed what they call the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI), which governments around the world and World Heritage site managers can use to determine whether sites are at low, moderate or high risk from climate change. The group will unveil the CVI at the UNESCO session this week. 

“Climate change is the fastest growing threat to World Heritage sites, degrading some of the most iconic, beautiful and biodiverse places in the world, including the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom and Yellowstone National Park,” said Markham, who served as the lead author of the 2016 report “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate,” released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and UCS. “But there is no standardized way to assess the vulnerability of these sites. We developed the index to fill that gap, so that experts and site managers can use local knowledge and the best available science to determine the risk level, and then take the appropriate action to protect the sites.” 

The index was piloted earlier this year at a workshop in Scotland, organized by Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the Scottish government’s management agency for world heritage, UCS and other partners, to ascertain the threat that climate change poses to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site. 

Scott Heron, a JCU researcher and co-developer of the CVI, said the index proved its worth. “The workshop participants ranked the vulnerability for the Orkney World Heritage site at the highest level, with the greatest risks coming from precipitation change, sea level rise and storm intensity and frequency,” he said. 

HES is immediately responding to the findings by integrating them into a new five-year management plan to protect and preserve the site. The agency plans to use the index to assess its other World Heritage properties. Norway, and possibly Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, also plan to use the index to assess their sites. 

Ewan Hyslop, the head of technical research and science at HES, said, “We hope that the World Heritage Committee recommends that UNESCO adopt the CVI  as a standard for measuring climate change risk to World Heritage sites.” 

For more information, read Markham’s recent blog posts “It’s Time to Stop Ignoring the Climate Change Threat to World Heritage” and “A New Way to Assess the Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage.

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