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Heritage on the Edge urges action on the climate crisis

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Editor’s note: Guest author Dr. Toshiyuki Kono is President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Distinguished Professor Kono also teaches private international law and heritage law at Japan's Kyushu University.

Preserving and protecting the past is essential for our future. This belief is at the core of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a global non-government organization dedicated to the conservation of architectural and archaeological heritage.

Our 10,000 members across the globe—including architects, archeologists, geographers, planners and anthropologists—share the same vision: to protect and promote the world’s cultural heritage. The recent youth climate demonstrations shed a spotlight on the urgency of the climate crisis, which is having a devastating effect on our cultural monuments too. It is important to take action, and we must act now to save this part of our human legacy.

That’s why, in collaboration with CyArk and Google Arts & Culture, we’re launching Heritage on the Edge, a new online experience that stresses the gravity of the situation through the lens of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You can join us and explore over 50 online exhibits, 3D models, Street View tours, and interviews with local professionals and communities about Rapa Nui’s (Easter Island) iconic statues, the great mosque city of Bagerhat in Bangladesh, the adobe metropolis of Chan Chan in Peru, Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle and the coastal city of Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania—all heritage sites that are affected by the climate crisis.
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    Built from volcanic stone  by the native Polynesian inhabitants from the 10th to 16th centuries, the Easter Island Statues—called Moai—stand at an average height of 13 feet and weigh 14 tons each. As sea levels rise and storms increase, the cliffs where the monuments are located are being undercut. The statues will eventually fall into the sea.

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    The historic fortress and urban center of Edinburgh is Scotland's most-visited tourist attraction and at risk from rapidly increasing rainfall and groundwater flooding.

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    Kilwa Kisiwani in Tanzania is the most famous Swahili Coast trading port on the Indian Ocean. Site Director Mercy Mbogellah and her team monitor and work to preserve the site, which is at risk from sea-level rise, mangrove depletion and ocean acidification. Explore the site’s Gereza Fort and the impact of climate change up close in a Augmented Reality “Pocket Gallery”.

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    Peru's Chan Chan is the world’s largest adobe city. It is being washed away by increasing torrential rain caused by climate change. But building roofs won’t solve the problem either: Thanks to rising groundwater levels, they could cause a dangerous microclimate and ultimately affect the buildings’ structural stability.

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    A 3D visualization of the Nine Dome Mosque in the Mosque City of Bagerhat in Bangladesh uses a “point cloud” to represent its high concentration of finely made religious monuments and spatial planning. But the monuments are rapidly decaying due to salt water flooding and erosion. With help of this data we were able to also create another dedicated “Pocket Gallery” that lets you explore the Nine Dome Mosque in Augmented Reality.

Above all, the project is a call to action. The effects of climate change on our cultural heritage mirror wider impacts on our planet, and require a strong and meaningful response. While actions at individual sites can prevent loss locally, the only sustainable solution is systemic change and the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Heritage on the Edge collects stories of loss, but also of hope and resilience. They remind us that all our cultural heritage, including these iconic World Heritage Sites, are more than just tourist destinations. They are places of great national, spiritual and cultural significance.

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