Catalyst Spring 2016

Cherished Sites at Risk around the Globe

UCS teams up with the United Nations to assess climate threats to key World Heritage sites

by Seth Shulman


Photo: David Gonzalez

Adam Markham: Building Bridges across Continents

As director of the UCS climate impacts team, Adam Markham has traveled the world from Alaska to Australia, engaging with biologists, indigenous tribal leaders, ranchers, archaeologists, policy makers, historic preservationists, park rangers, and many others.

“Things are noticeably changing,” he says. “For a lot of the people I work with, climate change has not been front and center. Now it is moving to the fore in many fields.” Specifically, he cites recent collaborations with the National Historic Trust, the National Park Service, and the Society for American Archaeology.

A native of England, Markham has a long track record of working at the nexus of history, conservation, and climate change. Before joining UCS in 2013, he directed the World Wildlife Fund’s climate campaign, leading its team at the 1997 United Nations conference where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. He has testified before the US Senate on climate impacts, and written and edited several books including A Brief History of Pollution. 

“One of the great pleasures of this project,” he says, “is that being affiliated with UCS makes it so easy to work with scientists and other experts around the world. I’m very grateful to UCS supporters for making this work possible—the new partners we’ve gained through this work all recognize UCS as a leader in this field and it’s helping us make real progress.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists broke new ground with its 2014 report National Landmarks at Risk. Focusing on imminent climate threats to iconic American destinations such as the Statue of Liberty and Mesa Verde National Park, the report forcefully brought home a message that the effects of climate change are already occurring—endangering beloved pieces of America’s natural and cultural heritage. Picked up widely by the media, including coverage on network television’s nightly news, the report helped transcend the partisan divide over climate change because the undeniable impacts it chronicled were occurring at places cherished by all Americans regardless of their political affiliation.

National Landmarks at Risk started a conversation in the United States and abroad that has spurred action in some surprising circles. Most recently, UCS was approached by UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—to partner on a new report looking at climate threats to World Heritage sites around the globe. Forthcoming later this spring, the report will be a joint production of UCS, UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

UNESCO began designating World Heritage sites in 1972 to recognize and protect natural and cultural properties around the globe deemed to hold “outstanding universal value.” The buildings, wilderness, and historic ruins listed in virtually every nation confer recognition, prestige, and often tourist income for some of the globe’s most distinctive places, from the Taj Mahal to the Great Barrier Reef. Now, many of these places (including those pictured here) face unprecedented climate-driven challenges.

“One of the important messages of this work is that the effects of climate change are all around us, affecting not just places we know and care about, but the whole fabric of our cultural heritage that goes along with that,” says Adam Markham, deputy director of the UCS Climate and Energy Program and head of the UCS climate impacts team (see the sidebar). “Many climate scientists are so focused on the natural threats we face that they tend to overlook the very real threat to cultural resources. By focusing on World Heritage sites in partnership with UNESCO, we’re able to collaborate with a whole new set of players.”

Venice, Italy

Photo: Wolfgang Moroder/Creative Commons

Venice, Italy

With its extraordinary medieval and Renaissance architecture, Venice has been a tourist magnet for centuries, but the city is now under severe threat from climate-driven sea level rise. Despite an elaborate network of 79 floodgates due to be completed in 2016 at a cost of some $5 billion, high-tide flooding in the city has already increased seven-fold in the last century, with much worse flooding anticipated in the years to come.

Kivalina, Alaska

Kivalina, Alaska

Photo: Suzanne Tennant

The health and future of thousands of native villagers, their traditional practices, and cultural heritage hangs in the balance as rapid climate change tightens its grip on Alaska. Of the state’s 213 native villages, 184 are already experiencing severe problems related to flooding and erosion. Many will almost certainly have to relocate within the next decade, and more than 30 were identified six years ago by the US government as already facing an “imminent threat.”

The Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

Photo: Oregon State University/Creative Commons

The world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, covering an area of more than 134,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef comprises some 2,500 individual coral reefs of varying size and more than 900 islands ranging from small, sandy cays to large, rugged continental islands that collectively include some of the most spectacular marine biodiversity in the world. Like other coral reefs worldwide, the Great Barrier Reef now faces enormous stress from higher sea temperatures and ocean acidification, which kill coral and therefore threaten the entire ecosystem.

Tasmanian Wilderness

Tasmanian Wilderness

Photo: Dan Broun

Hotter temperatures and drier conditions driven by climate change led to massive wildfires in early 2016 that burned more than 260,000 acres of northwestern Tasmania. Though some of Tasmania’s vegetation, such as eucalyptus, has adapted to wildfires, many of the recent blazes raged through ancient forests—with trees often more than 1,000 years old that have not adapted to fire—killing the trees and their seeds, making natural regeneration all but impossible.

Gullah-Geechee Nation, Southeast United States

Gullah Geechee Nation

Photo: denisbin/Creative Commons

Members of the Gullah-Geechee Nation are descendants of African slaves who, living in relative isolation on the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina, developed their own unique language and culture. Today they face rapid sea level rise and coastal erosion. UCS has met with members of the community to share information and help develop climate resilience plans.