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How global warming imperils our history

C. Brian Rose, president of the Archeological Institute of America, introduced the November/December 2008 issue of Archeology with an editorial that begins as follows:

Global warming is real and it is one of the gravest threats facing our shared cultural heritage.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1995, and the UN’s Environment Program notes that the world’s glaciers are receding at a record pace.  This situation brings a cascade of problems that are having a catastrophic impact on archeological sites.  Melting of ice and permafrost endanger most frozen sites on the continents, while rising sea levels promote the erosion and submergence of others…  Examples in recent years include Ötzi, the late Neolithic herdsmen discovered in the Italian Alps; the 550-year-old Native American hunter whose body was recovered from a melting glacier in British Columbia; and the Inca human sacrifices found on Andean peaks.  Similarly endangered are the frozen burials of Eurasian nomads… Remains of 5,000 year old stone houses built by Neolithic farmers and hunters at Skara Brae, Orkney, may have to be dismantled and moved inland for protection.  Portions of the ruins of Nan Madol, an ancient political and religious center on the Pacific island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, may soon be submerged.

In the context of the larger consequences of global climate change, these effects on the historical record may seem incidental or modest, but of course the losses might be permanent, and as Rose has noted, not that difficult to document now.  He calls for a UNESCO and NASA and ESA program to do fast satellite imaging to map glaciers, since the ultraviolet readings can lead investigators to burial sites.

Every other year the World Monuments Fund releases a “world monuments watch list” to call attention to endangered sites.  For the first time in 2008, global climate change is named as a cause of urgent concern, noting that “several sites… are threatened right now by flooding, encroaching desert, and changing weather patterns.”  Two examples:  (a) Herschel Island, Canada, “home to ancient Inuit sites and a historic whaling town at the edge of the Yukon Territory that are being lost to the rising sea and melting permafrost in this fastest-warming part of the world”; and (b) Sonargaon-Panam City, Bangladesh, “a former medieval trading hub and crossroads of culture, whose long-neglected and deteriorating architecture is increasingly threatened by flooding in this low-lying country, one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.”  The dangers, because they are likely to approach gradually, are easy to ignore, and in the context of archeological sites where the main evidence is already obscured and not in plain site, awful losses might be occurring without anyone even knowing it.

Despite such warnings, there is little evidence of policy action to move in ways that would conserve historical preservation sites, perhaps not surprising given the lack of action on climate change’s broader consequences.  A recent study published by the journal Climate Change notes in Great Britain, where some emphasis has been placed on cataloging climate effects, “lack of a widespread consideration of heritage has resulted in a relatively low profile more generally for the subject.”  A 2005 UK Environment Agency report organized to set “a science agenda… in light of climate change impacts and adaptation” never mentions heritage preservation.

The danger does not simply derive from changing levels in oceans and rivers.  A 2006 “Heritage at Risk” report argues that climate change is partly responsible for the summer of 2007 fires that were among “the largest catastrophes in the Mediterranean in the last century.”  Warming was at fault because it made fires more common and intense; research reported by the Athens Observatory notes that global warming also changes soil humidity levels, and this also contributes to fire susceptibility.  While climate change is not the only cause of fires, their 2007 severity raised alarms in the historical preservation community, especially given damage to “our cultural heritage in the Peloponnese.  This included the Arcadian landscapes, Byzantine churches and monasteries, Apollo Epicurius at Bassae (a World Heritage Site), the Antiquities in Ilieia and especially the archeological site of Olympia (also a World Heritage Site).  There was damage to the area surrounding the Olympia archeological site.  The Kladios stream, a tributary of the Alpheios River, was burnt to a great extent, whereas the Kronios Hill was burnt entirely.  The park and the surroundings of the International Olympic Academy were destroyed.  Furthermore, some slopes near the ancient stadium were also burnt.”

The Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London released (in 2005) a major report on these issues, Climate Change and the Historic Environment, authored by May Cassar.  The document summarizes a comprehensive effort to catalog the risks, but for me most compelling starts by quoting Titania’s “weather speech,” a part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II Scene I), which eerily anticipates the threat, and may even have been prompted by the “meteorologically turbulent time when Shakespeare was writing his play” (Cassar):

                …the spring, the summer,
                The chiding autumn, angry winter, change
                Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
                By their increase, now knows not which is which:
                And this same progeny of evil comes
                From our debate, from our dissension;
                We are their parents and original.

SOURCE:  A.J. Howard et al., “The impact of climate change on archeological resources in Britain: A catchment scale assessment,” Climate Change 91 (2008): 405-422; May Cassar, Climate Change and the Historic Environment (London: English Heritage and the UK Climate Impacts Programme, 2005).


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