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The Waves that Rocked the Boat

Is Global Heritage aboard a Sinking Ship?

By Nuala Burnett

Inky black wings break the surface of the choppy water surrounding the islands of Saint Kilda, as a kittiwake propels itself out of the ocean and lands on the towering cliffs above. They gather in colonies here, along with gannets and puffins, their raucous noise characteristic of a place devoid of human inhabitants that is left almost utterly to nature. At the same time, miles across the North Sea and Europe’s continental land mass, the famed Blue Mosque of Istanbul is opening its ornate doors for the morning, ushering in waves of people ready to pray. Despite their wildly different appearances, both Saint Kilda and the Blue Mosque are world heritage sites, inscribed for their unique characteristics and global significance. Another shared characteristic is the risk both sites are experiencing as a result of climate change, which is now the primary threat to heritage sites across the world.

Projections for 1.5 degrees of global planetary warming have many consequences, yet one often overlooked is the adverse impact that climate change is inflicting on the world’s shared heritage. Scattered across the globe are a myriad of places, features and biological assemblages that are internationally recognised as adding something of significance to life. From Yosemite to the Great Barrier Reef and the Vatican City to Palmyra, heritage is found in all corners of the world and represents ecological, economic, cultural, historical and aesthetic value. Yet, in spite of the global recognition of its importance under UNESCO, heritage is often pushed aside in major debates and public discussions on environmental change, and the imminent threat global warming poses to heritage is often overlooked.

This threat takes both physical and theoretical forms. Climatic warming impacts heritage through accelerated rates of decay and shifting habitats, whilst simultaneously challenging the normative processes and frameworks used in conservation. On an immediate physical level, climate change is evident in over 29% of world heritage sites. On Saint Kilda, for example, breeding rates are severely diminished, with only one baby kittiwake born in 2015, compared to 56 when monitoring of the colony began in 1994. This is the result of a shifting habitat which pushes the kittiwakes to the edge of their tolerance levels, resulting in eventual species decline or permanent displacement. Similarly, sea level rise remains a global threat to many coastal cities, with the Mediterranean facing a projected doubling of both the severity and frequency of storm surges over the next 80 years. Istanbul is also at risk from encroaching sea levels from the Sea of Marmara, often considered a part of the Mediterranean. Here, the Blue Mosque is one amongst many heritage sites under threat; high groundwater levels and rising damp have already necessitated a series of renovations to the historic foundations of the building. The risk to the mosque’s structural integrity is predicted to worsen with climate change, as rising sea levels may not only raise but also salinate groundwater sources, resulting in salt crystallisation that could erode the mosque’s stone foundations.

Climate change also has pervasive secondary impacts. Communities facing global warming are being forced to re-evaluate the importance of their heritage, and whether it is economically and culturally viable to try and preserve it. The rapid pace of anthropogenic change has accelerated the timescales along which most conservation measures normally take place, forcing decisions to be made quickly before heritage is pushed too close to a ‘tipping point’ from which it cannot return. Suddenly, experts, governments and people across the globe are being asked to re-evaluate centuries worth of prestige and to determine what should be saved. Earth’s heritage, both cultural and natural, is on board a sinking ship, and we must decide what to grab and take with us.

"Communities facing global warming are being forced to re-evaluate the importance of their heritage, and whether it is economically and culturally viable to try and preserve it."

Whilst the most beautiful locations across the planet are listed as heritage sites for their awe-inspiring aesthetic appeal, heritage value is far more than superficial surface attraction. Many of such sites are in fact fundamental to ecosystem function or resource provision for the communities that live alongside them. In the remote Scottish Hebrides, the topographical features of Saint Kilda contribute to the overall function of its island ecosystem, with high cliffs and sea stacks supporting the one of the largest and potentially most important seabird breeding locations in Europe. Preservation of heritage is therefore vital not only for human appreciation, but also for the maintenance of ecosystems and biological communities. In this way, heritage sites can both support earth systems’ functioning and contribute to future understanding of its changing biota.

In the same way as heritage can help us understand our geological and biological worlds, it can be used to reconstruct human history. The shifting relationships and allegiances between ancient cultures can be traced in the hybrid mesh of cultures found in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Istanbul’s strategic location on the Bosporus peninsula, a meeting point for European and Asian civilisations, means that the city has been party to major historical and political events over the past two millennia. Here, the dual influences combine to create a historic skyline that traces architecture from both the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, providing pure aesthetic appreciation alongside historical and cultural value. The Blue Mosque itself is a hybrid of the two empires: an Ottoman constructed monument on the site of a Byzantine palace, built to reassert the dominance of Istanbul and the Ottoman empire following its defeat at war with Persia. The mosque therefore offers a cross-sectional view of the overlapping power structures that once dominated Istanbul, offering a window into past cultural and political formations. Heritage in this instance provides a means of documenting the past, aesthetic appeal, economic value to the local economy from tourism and an integral spiritual value for those who worship at the Blue Mosque.


These multiple facades of heritage make it even more vital to a shared global understanding of the past, and as a way of better understanding our future. It is therefore imperative that we make prompt and informed decisions on how to best preserve these vital aspects of shared life on earth. Whilst many world heritage sites have detailed management plans to mitigate the numerous challenges that they face, these pale in the face of the most significant and universal threat to heritage: climate change. The only way to tackle both the shifting ranges that are impacting breeding seabird populations on St Kilda, and the rising sea levels threatening Istanbul’s historic architecture, is to prevent further global warming and climatic change.

"Whilst many world heritage sites have detailed management plans to mitigate the numerous challenges that they face, these pale in the face of the most significant and universal threat to heritage: climate change."

Thankfully, heritage studies is experiencing a revolution in its recognition of the need to manage, mitigate and adapt heritage sites to climate change. Over the past 50 years, a wave of post-world-war nostalgia instilled in the public consciousness a prolonged desire to remember, with emphasis placed on the memorialisation of past societies and histories. This push for remembrance can be seen in statues constructed in ode to those who fought in wars, and in the increasing desire to preserve buildings or monuments considered significant, regardless of their state of disrepair. This perspective, combined with the great technological capacity of the 21st century, has resulted in the preservation of more heritage than ever before.

Heritage could even be thought of as nearing its saturation point, termed by UCL Professor Rodney Harrison as a ‘crisis of accumulation’. A need to reevaluate what is deemed worthy of heritage status is present today as never before. Yet with only two sites ever delisted from the World Heritage List, this reconsideration of ‘What makes heritage worthwhile?’ is something not commonly practiced by heritage authorities. Climate change offers an opportunity to re-evaluate the list, with a new vantage point from which to assess sites and their likely futures. Are they about to be encroached by rising sea levels? Is there any economic value in saving them? Have cultural values shifted since their initial listing? Do they still offer the same value for which they were initially listed?

Climate change carries a multitude of impacts for the earth system, and while it may contribute to the demise of valuable sites, it can also provide opportunity for a new paradigm to emerge in heritage and other fields of conservation. It offers such a fundamental shift in current UNESCO attitudes and abilities to preserve that it paves the way for a ‘second coming’ of the framework and approach to heritage conservation across the globe. Such a re-evaluation would allow for a redistribution of resources to best preserve heritage with the greatest global value, offering perhaps a communistic approach to conservation that focuses on the best strategy for the universal, rather than individual.

Climate change may lead to the deterioration and destruction of heritage, but may also be its saviour in a time of over-accumulation. The importance of discarding heritage that no longer makes sense in order to ensure the safety and longevity of other, more significant pieces emerges from this rethinking of heritage studies. However, this is a strategy that must be practiced in tandem with approaches to manage and minimise the looming threats of climate change. Whilst sites such as the Blue Mosque are home to undisputable cultural and historic value, other locations such as St Kilda derive their value from their unique biotic and geomorphic make-up, and it is this value that is most threatened by climate change. Here, the conditions for heritage are intrinsically linked to the climate and biosphere, making the mitigation of anthropogenic warming paramount to future survival.

"The takeaway message for heritage in a time of uncertain environmental conditions is therefore not one of disaster, but of a new-found opportunity to re-evaluate what is of paramount importance for our future, and ultimately changed, societies."

Deliberation over what to conserve revolves precisely around this discussion of value. Debate over whether biotic sites, now facing existential threat to their ecological composition, should take precedence over human created heritage, hinges on both our species’ and biotic species’ ability to adapt. Arguably, modern day societies are well equipped to relocate as a mitigation strategy against climate change, whilst species confined to their ecological niches are not. Humans have the capability to rebuild communities, whereas for the gannets on St Kilda, their habitats are on the cusp of being irreversibly damaged. This debate also broaches discussion over whether the previously incomparable values of history, aesthetic and biotic functioning are in fact comparable. Climate change offers not only an opportunity to rethink the relative importance of heritage, but also the potential to overhaul the entire methodology of the discipline.

Questions of what to preserve and how to preserve them are vast. However, the greatest decision to be made is deciding which heritage is the most significant globally. Whether this involves a value judgement relating to vulnerability of species and societies, or a metric relating to the number of visitors and relative economic income, judgement of any kind will inevitably alienate swathes of heritage, and communities who appreciate it. Clashes between anthropogenic, economic and ecocentric framings indicate there is no clear path forward. If global heritage is to be saved from an uncertain future, international discussion needs to focus on how to best prioritise from within our vast global collection of things of value.


Nuala Burnett is in her final year reading for a BA in Geography at Worcester College, Oxford University. She is particularly interested in environmental change and the future of urban development, and based her undergraduate dissertation around the integration of green infrastructure into London’s architecture and future plans. After graduating she hopes to pursue a career in the environment sector, integrating both theoretical and practical approaches to solving the challenges contemporary society is facing in the Anthropocene. In her spare time she enjoys dancing to 70s disco, vintage shopping and rock climbing.


This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III.

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