Climate Change Is Already Threatening Dozens Of World Heritage Sites With Flooding And Coastal Erosion

Book your tickets to Tyre now. Eva Mont/Shutterstock

Earlier this week, we learned that climate change could put the craft beer industry out of business. Now, we find out it's coming for our history.

Cultural treasures from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the ancient metropolis at Carthage and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia could be devastated by major flooding and coastal erosion by the end of the century, warns a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications.


While it has been known for quite some time that climate change poses a big threat to many of the 1,092 cultural and natural wonders on the 2018 World Heritage List – see the city of Venice as a prime example – there has been little research into the matter. To rectify the situation, researchers led by Lena Reimann, a geographer at Germany’s Kiel University, assessed the threat of flooding and erosion caused by sea level rise at 49 UNESCO heritage sites in the Mediterranean, selected because they are considered to be the most at risk.

Every one of the sites is located in the Mediterranean Low Elevation Coastal Zone, meaning they are no more than 10 meters (33 feet) above sea level. Italy had the greatest concentration of sites (15), followed by Croatia (7), Greece (4), and Tunisia (4). 

The team modeled four different sea-level-rise scenarios from 2000 to 2100, accounting for different levels of greenhouse gas emissions and ice sheet melt. Even the most optimistic projections predicted the vast majority are at extreme risk of flooding and coastal erosion.

In fact, 90 percent of the sites studied are already at risk – 37 of the 49 sites are threatened by flooding (this could jump to 40 by 2100 in the worst-case scenario) and 42 are threatened by coastal erosion. By the end of the century, the researchers predict that only two sites (the Medina of Tunis and Xanthos-Letoon in Turkey) will not be threatened by either.


The Floating City (aka Venice) is renowned for its labyrinth of canals and lagoons. It is also expected to see the worst flooding as a result of sea level rise. During a once-in-100-years storm surge (based on current expectations), as much as 98 percent of the city could be submerged. 

The site threatened most by coastal erosion is Tyre, a Phoenician city in modern-day Lebanon. Not only is it located exactly on the Mediterranean coastline, but the ground is especially sandy and waves reach an average height of 0.7 meters (2.3 feet), putting it at an extremely high risk. The locations with the second-greatest risk are the Pythagoreion and Heraion of Samos in Greece.

What now? You may be tempted to grab your passport, pack your bags, and book the next flight to Athens and we wouldn't blame you. But the study authors want the research to raise awareness and encourage policymakers to develop strategies to protect these historical legacies in the face of rising sea levels. Officials in Venice, for example, are installing a mobile barrier system to ward off floodwater. Others are slower on the uptake. Reimann and co. hope that, in these cases, UNESCO might step in.


  • tag
  • flooding,

  • climate,