Rising sea levels threaten Mediterranean world heritage sites


Modelling produces worrying results, but solutions can be found. Andrew Masterson reports.


In danger: Venice's classic canals.

In danger: Venice's classic canals.

Peter Zelei Images/Getty Images

Three quarters of the UNESCO World Heritage sites around the coast of the Mediterranean are at significant risk of loss through flooding or erosion because of sea level rises, modelling shows.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a team led by Lena Reimann of Kiel University in Germany calculates the risk of damage by extreme flood or erosion implicit in four sea-level rise models. These predict increases in flood risk across the region at between 13 and 50% by the turn of the century, with “considerably higher increases” at particular locations.

Of 49 world heritage sites (WHS) in low lying coastal areas, the researchers estimate that 37 could be significantly damaged, or lost, by the year 2100.

One third of the sites are located in Italy, with others set in Croatia, Greece and Tunisia.

The vulnerable sites include the Piazza del Duomo in Pisa, and the Medieval City of Rhodes, and Venice.

Venice, however, also provides a demonstration of how to avoid the looming cultural loss. Reimann and her colleagues point to a project known as the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico/Experimental Electromechanical Module, currently underway in the city.

The ambitious project involves surrounding Venice with submerged mobile barriers, which will be raised to exclude excess water whenever the sea level rises a metre above the norm. The researchers calculate that when complete, the barriers will effectively protect the world heritage site from damage.

Other places, they suggest, might want to take heed of the latest findings and follow suit.

“Our results provide a first-order assessment of where adaptation is most urgently needed and can support policymakers in steering local-scale research to devise suitable adaptation strategies for each WHS,” the scientists conclude.

  1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-06645-9
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