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Rising Seas Pose Imminent Threat to Dozens of Historical Sites Across the Mediterranean

Venetian canals, Phoenician port city of Tyre and Croatia’s Old City of Dubrovnik are amongst the sites at risk of flooding, erosion

Venice, one of the cities most at risk, has already installed submerged floodgates aimed at combating flooding, but it’s one of the few to take such preventative action (Jenny Kim/Public domain)
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The Mediterranean coast is dotted with a host of significant cultural sites. To name just a few, there’s Tyre, an ancient Phoenician port city once besieged by Alexander the Great, at the far eastern reaches of the sea. The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the waterlogged canals of Venice lie roughly opposite each other on the western and eastern Italian coasts. Across the Adriatic Sea, the picturesque streets of Croatia’s Old City of Dubrovnik earned them a starring role on “Game of Thrones,” and to the south, the Greek city of Ephesus boasts the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

But these landmarks are in trouble, among the 47 Unesco World Heritage sites identified along the Mediterranean’s coasts that face imminent flooding or erosion risks triggered by rising global sea levels. As Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report for the Washington Post, a new study predicts that within the next 100 years, 37 of these world heritage sites could be significantly damaged by a 100-year storm surge event, while 42 are already threatened by coastal erosion.

To calculate the extent of these threats, a team of researchers led by Lena Reimann of Germany’s Kiel University created four sea-level rise models centered on Italy, Croatia, Greece and Tunisia. Analysis suggested that by 2100, the region’s flood risk could increase by 50 percent and erosion risk by 13 percent. The study appears in Nature Communications.

Conservative projections of sea-level rise and erosion fail to paint a more promising portrait of the future. Under any scenario, the researchers write that already more than 90 percent of the sites included in the study are at risk, and it appears that conditions will continue to decline. In the team’s worst-case erosion scenario, historic sites lose the safety of surrounding coastal lands as average distance from encroaching waters drops by 90 percent. In the worst-case flooding scenario, Reimann tells Jessica Leigh Hester of Atlas Obscura that up to 98 percent of Venice and its saltwater lagoon could be submerged.

Of the 49 world heritage sites examined, just two are currently projected to avoid both erosion and flooding: the palaces, mosques and monuments of the Medina of Tunis and the ancient Lycian capital of Xanthos-Letoon. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the only site at risk of flooding but not erosion, while seven sites—the Grecian island of Rhodes; the Medina of Sousse; Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre; Old Town of Corfu; Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto; White City of Tel-Aviv; and the Stari Grad Plain in Cyprus—are solely at risk of erosion.

The Washington Post’s Mooney and Dennis report that the Mediterranean coast is particularly vulnerable because the early human civilizations that settled in the area clustered near the water. For much of the past 3,000 years, this hasn’t been an issue, but the ongoing effects of climate change and rising sea levels are forcing re-evaluation.

Reimann tells Atlas Obscura’s Hester that “innovative adaptation measures” will determine the fate of the world’s cultural heritage sites. Venice, one of the cities most at risk, has already installed submerged floodgates aimed at combating flooding, but it’s one of the few to take such preventative action.

Still, a sliver of hope remains. As Reimann concludes in an interview with CNN’s Sandee LaMotte, “If rigorous climate change mitigation is pursued as planned under the Paris Agreement, future increases in flood risk and erosion risk could be kept to a minimum."

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