Following the Colosseum's opening in 80 A.D., Ancient Romans flocked to it for public events of all sorts, from bloody gladiator fights to theatrical productions.
Following the Colosseum's opening in 80 A.D., Ancient Romans flocked to it for public events of all sorts, from bloody gladiator fights to theatrical productions. Luke Daniek/iStockphoto
The Parthenon sits atop a hill overlooking Athens. Construction on the temple, built almost entirely from marble, began in 447 B.C. and was completed nine years later. Over centuries, the Parthenon has suffered considerable damage.
The Parthenon sits atop a hill overlooking Athens. Construction on the temple, built almost entirely from marble, began in 447 B.C. and was completed nine years later. Over centuries, the Parthenon has suffered considerable damage. Brent Wong/iStockphoto
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Dark lines caused by gas emissions are clearly evident on facades of buildings.
Dark lines caused by gas emissions are clearly evident on facades of buildings. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
In Rome, the Tiber River flows below the Church of the Kights of Malta on the Aventine Hill.
In Rome, the Tiber River flows below the Church of the Kights of Malta on the Aventine Hill. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Like all old Italian city centers, Bologna is filled with monuments — and heavy traffic, and the mark of gas emissions is visible in the dark lines on the buildings' facades.
European researchers are now warning that severe damage from desertification and intense rains could pose to a threat to cultural heritage sites such as the Tower of London, the historic center of Prague and the ancient temples of Greece.
Until recently, climate change studies have largely focused on the potential effects on human health and the natural environment, but a report authored by specialists from seven European countries is the first large-scale project tackling the impact of climate change on historic landmarks.
Commissioned by the European Union, the study uses projected climate data to create a series of maps indicating which regions will undergo varying degrees of risk and the probable impact on the areas' cultural heritage sites.
The study, called Noah's Ark, is directed at policymakers and conservationists alike.
"Our studies demonstrate that water is the driving parameter of all the damage process. If we have more water we have a problem. If we have less water, we have other problems," explains Alessandra Bonazza, a geologist and researcher at Bologna's Institute for Atmospheric Sciences and Climate Change, the organization that supervised the report.
Experts warn that lower humidity levels in southern Europe will lead to an increase in the amount of salts deposited on marble and limestone, potentially weakening and breaking structures such as the Parthenon in Athens and the Colosseum in Rome. In northern Europe, where wood and metals are commonly used, increased moisture could also lead to fractures and rotting from insects and organic agents such as lichen and moss. Monuments like the Eiffel tower could be damaged by corrosion, according to the report.
Its authors, however, warn that their prognosis doesn't give a complete picture of the situation. They add that rising sea levels could threaten thousands of monuments along European coastlines and that while intervention is necessary, not all monuments can be saved from the threat of climate change.
'An Important First Step'
In Rome, the Tiber River flows below the Church of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine Hill. On the other bank is the 15th century building of San Michele, headquarters of the U.N.-backed International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.
Unit director Joseph King says that extreme changes in weather patterns could produce flooding, damaging not only individual buildings, but the city's entire urban fabric.
"Our definition of cultural heritage has expanded," King says. "We used to talk about the Colosseum or St. Peter's or individual buildings. Now when we talk of cultural heritage, we talk more about historic towns, and we talk about cultural landscapes."
King says the ISAC report is an important first step toward understanding the potential impact of climate change.
"We now are starting to realize these problems exist. We need more research. We need to understand better at a more detailed level what kind of problems we are going to have."
Solutions, King says, will have to be tailored to each different cultural heritage site, and societies, not lawmakers, will need to set priorities and decide what's important to their cultural identity.
"It's not possible to make a blanket solution for Agrigento, Cinque Terre and for Rome and for New Orleans in terms of materials, in terms of the climate itself, but also in terms of the cultural traditions you are trying to save, the kinds of heritage—both the physical heritage but also the meanings of those heritage to the people that live there," he says.