Europe’s main tourist sites are fighting climate change to survive

Climate change is destroying heritage sites in Europe and around the world. Ancient historic sites could disappear altogether unless swift action is taken to protect them from environmental damage, researchers warn.

Climate change is destroying heritage sites in Europe and around the world. Ancient historic sites could disappear altogether unless swift action is taken to protect them from environmental damage, researchers warn.

Future generations may never explore the streets conquered by medieval knights in Greece, the urban neighborhoods built by the Islamic Empire in Spain, the 10th century hilltop castles in Slovakia and many more historical marvels in Europe.

Flooding and rising temperatures are already damaging old buildings, said Angelos Amditis, coordinator of a project called HYPERION which helps large sites in Greece, Italy, Spain and Norway adapt to the impacts of climate change. .

“If we don’t act quickly, if we don’t allocate the right resources and knowledge, and…create a common alliance to solve the problems of climate change, we will pay dearly,” he said.

“We could (completely) lose well-known landmarks in Europe and around the world… our children may not have the chance to see them, except on video,” said Dr Amditis, director of research and development at the Athens-based Institute of Communication. and computer systems (ICCS).

Historical vulnerabilities

The HYPERION project develops tools to map risks and help local authorities find the most cost-effective ways to reduce the vulnerability of historic sites.

Risk mapping includes assessing the structure and condition of buildings and monuments and installing sensors to monitor the continuing impacts of climate change and other threats on sites.

The project also uses data from European Copernicus satellites to map risk areas and collect climate data.

What can make conservation work particularly complex is that different buildings on the same site were often constructed at different times and with different materials. Each building must therefore be assessed individually and may require different forms of protection.

For example, early builders in Venice often reused locally found stones and other building materials. As the city became wealthier, it began to import fresh materials of better quality and which proved more resistant to the impacts of rising tides and flooding.

Viking cities

And in the Norwegian Viking city of Tønsberg, buildings were constructed over several centuries and made with different types of wood or stone. Local temperatures rise and affect each building material differently, Dr Amditis said.

Many monuments and sites are made more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because they are already suffering damage from pollution, earthquakes or other hazards.

So, to build their resilience to climate change, they need to be restored and protected from all the dangers they face, Dr Amditis said.

For example, the beautiful Greek city of Rhodes is hit by frequent heat waves, earthquakes and floods. But its medieval buildings also need to be protected from damage caused by heavy goods vehicles. This could involve finding a less harmful way to transport goods to local people, Dr Amditis said. The HYPERION project is not involved in this aspect of city resilience planning.

Residents’ solutions

Authorities must involve local communities when planning ways to protect heritage, said Daniel Lückerath, project coordinator of a project called ARCH.

“The danger is that they won’t like the solution you offer and won’t use the historic area anymore,” said Dr. Lückerath, project manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Analysis Systems and intelligent information systems (IAIS) in Germany.

“People are what make historic areas…what give these areas value,” he said. Without them, “you’d just be a ghost town,” he added.

Like HYPERION, the ARCH project develops tools enabling authorities to assess and protect their local heritage. ARCH is co-designing them with the authorities of the former Slovak capital Bratislava, the Italian village of Camerino, Valencia in Spain and the German port city, Hamburg.

There is sometimes a difficult trade-off between protecting heritage and allowing new developments that benefit the local community. For example, Hamburg recently carried out major dredging works to allow larger container ships to reach its port.

water levels

This work, combined with climate change, is changing water levels in the city’s 19th-century warehouse district, which is a World Heritage Site, Dr Lückerath said. This change in water levels could weaken the foundations of old warehouses and will therefore require continued monitoring, he said.

Major heritage sites are not the only ones to be preserved. “Any site in danger is a problem for the communities living there,” said Aitziber Egusquiza, coordinator of the SHELTER project which develops risk assessment, early warning systems and conservation tools for communities, including those who have few financial and technical resources.

In some cases, local authorities do not monitor the impacts of climate change and other risks, lack information on the age and condition of their local heritage and lack the political will to protect it. Consequently, communities living near some of the most exposed sites in Europe are not necessarily aware of their vulnerability, which makes their conservation very difficult.

“It worries me,” said Egusquiza, senior researcher at Tecnalia, an independent research and technology organization in Spain.

Convincing leaders to invest in the conservation of these sites is important, especially since they bring tourism and jobs – both of which will be lost if this heritage is lost, Egusquiza said.

“We need to put more numbers on what will be lost if we don’t act,” he said, referring to projections of economic impacts on local communities.

Community heritage

The tools developed by the SHELTER, ARCH and HYPERION projects will be tested by the cities and communities that participated in their design, then tested in other regions to see if they can be replicated in different situations. Ultimately, the goal is to help all communities protect their heritage.

But with Europe and other regions facing the combined crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the rising cost of living, it’s easy for leaders to push heritage preservation culture at the bottom of the list of priorities, said Dr Amditis.

“This is a very expensive and time-consuming exercise, but well worth the effort and resources. If you lose even one site, it’s a great loss for humanity,” he added.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally publishedin Skylinethe european magazine for research and innovation.

Teresa H. Sadler