Climate change threatens heritage sites

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From archaeological ruins in Scotland to 13th century mosques in the Sahara, the effects of climate change could destroy some of the world's most important natural and cultural heritage sites, a report has revealed.

Heritage sites that have existed for thousands of years "may, by virtue of climate change, very well not be available to future generations," said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Seaside cities that have lasted for centuries, some of the world's most important national parks, and a coral reef in Belize that Charles Darwin once described as "the most remarkable reef in the West Indies,"are all at risk from rising sea levels and increased temperatures.

"Our world is changing, there is no going back," said Tom Downing, co-author of the study, entitled The Atlas of Climate Change.

Mr Steiner said: "Adaptation to climate change should and must include natural and culturally important sites."

The report cited damage already done to wildlife parks such as the Donana National Park in southern Spain, a 50,000-hectare wetland that has lost more than 100 plant species over the past century as a result of increased water use.

Elsewhere, the Cape Floral Kingdom in South Africa has the largest number of species found anywhere on the planet. Already the 550,000-hectare site is experiencing changes in soil moisture and winter rainfall that threaten the existence of plants.

Several African countries are already drawing up plans to relocate their national parks, allowing animals to migrate to different regions if changes to the climate make their current migration patterns unsustainable. "The answer to climate change cannot be to lock things up in museums or in zoos," Mr Steiner added.

But with the right investment, Mr Steiner said, it was possible for such sites to adapt to climate change.

Coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, damaged by bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures in the 1990s "are recovering better in marine protected areas whereas those exposed to impacts from coastal developments and pollution are faring worse," he said.

Koichiro Matsuura, director general of Unesco, the organisation responsible for choosing world heritage sites, said protecting such sites from the effects of climate change had become "an intergovernmental priority of the highest order".

The Atlas of Climate Change was released to coincide with the UN Convention on Climate Change, currently being held in Nairobi. Some 6,000 delegates from around the world are meeting to discuss ways of meeting the challenges of global warming. Environment ministers, including Britain's David Miliband, will arrive in Nairobi next week for talks on a follow up to the Kyoto protocol, which comes to an end in 2012.

A UNEP report released earlier this week claimed that up to 70 million people in Africa could be at risk from flooding caused by rising sea levels. But Mr Downing said the risk to heritage sites helped to bring home the dangers of climate change to those who may not otherwise feel they are directly affected. "This is one of those aspects that affects everybody," he said.

"How many of us will be affected by a tropical cyclone? Not many. But we will all be affected by the loss of our cultural monuments."

Popular tourist sites are also at risk. The ancient Egyptian monuments of Alexandria are threatened by coastal erosion and rising water levels in the Nile delta region. In north- eastern Thailand, floods have already damaged the 600-year-old ruins of Ayutthaya, which served as the country's capital from the 14th to 18th century.

Mauritania's Chinguetti mosque, a world heritage site on the edge of the Sahara, is at risk from the increased desertification caused by climate change.

The mosque is home to a collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts. In Peru, accelerated melting of glaciers is threatening the Chavin de Huantar, home to pre-Inca treasures and temples.

The industrialised world is not immune. Flooding across Europe in 2002 damaged concert halls, theatres, museums and libraries - as well as 500,000 books and documents. In Canada, a deterioration of the permafrost at a 19th-century whalers' settlement is affecting many historic graves.

Last chance to see?

Scotland

Some 12,000 Scottish archaeological sites are vulnerable to coastal erosion, accelerated by rising sea levels - including medieval salt workings in Brora; an Iron Age site at Sandwich Bay; Unst, and a Viking site at Baileshire.

Egypt

The monuments of Alexandria, including the 15th-century Qait Bey Citadel, are threatened by coastal erosion and the inundation of the Nile delta. One of the original Seven Wonders of the World, it once held the largest library in the ancient world.

Belize

The Belize barrier reef, described in 1842 by Charles Darwin as "the most remarkable reef in the West Indies", has already suffered bleaching due to higher surface sea temperatures. Like many reefs, it is likely to suffer further as a result of rising temperatures.

Sahara

The 13th-century Chinguetti mosque, situated on the western edge of the Sahara, is home to a collection of historically-important Islamic manuscripts. But increased desertification, caused by rising temperatures and a lack of rain, has increased the chances of the desert encroaching on the site.

South Africa

Home to the largest number of indigenous species found anywhere on the planet, the future of the Cape Floral Kingdom is threatened by rising temperatures and increased rainfall. The Kruger National Park may also lose up to 60 per cent of the species that are currently protected.

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