Mapped: African World Heritage sites threatened by sea level rise ‘could triple by 2050’

Three times as many sites of sacred value, scientific wonders and natural splendors across Africa could face risks from human-induced climate change by mid-century, study finds.

The research reveals that 56 natural and cultural heritage sites across Africa are already at risk from coastal flooding and erosion exacerbated by rising sea levels.

By 2050, this figure is expected to increase to 191 in a “medium” emissions scenario and to 198 in a “high” emissions scenario, if no further coastal defenses are built.

Locations at risk range from Sabratha, a 2nd-century trading post in Libya, to the island of Kunta Kinteh, a Gambian site that serves as an “important, if painful” reminder of the slave trade.

The study suggests that there is an “urgent need” to invest more in ways to protect African heritage sites from the impacts of climate change, a study author told Carbon Brief.

The ‘crucial’ research sheds light on how climate change is causing ‘tangible and intangible’ loss and damage around the African coast, a researcher from Ghana has said.

“A lost cultural and natural heritage could mean the erasure of our history,” adds a young climate activist from Nigeria.

cultural loss

The research, published in Nature Climate Change, is the first to examine how African coastal heritage sites could be threatened by rising sea levels. It considers 284 heritage sites in 38 countries.

The study includes heritage sites recognized or under consideration by the UNESCO World Heritage Center and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The list includes important bird migration routes, critical waterways for coastal fishing communities, and archaeological sites containing vital clues to human evolution. Some sites are pictured below.

Although this is the most comprehensive list of its kind, it does not capture all the culturally significant sites in coastal Africa, says study author Professor Joanne Clarke, climate researcher and Heritage at the University of East Anglia. She tells Carbon Brief:

“We have modeled climate risks for sites supported by the World Heritage Center or the Ramsar Convention, but there are hundreds of sites that are not supported.

“Many [unrecognised sites] are incredibly fragile and important to local communities. The indigenous sites are really pressing, which may not be globally recognized, but are highly valued by local people.

The research specifically examines how African heritage sites could be affected by extreme events associated with sea level rise, including coastal flooding and erosion.

Around the world, sea level rise is caused by the melting of land ice and the expansion of water as it warms. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea levels around Africa have been rising at a faster rate than the global average over the past three decades.

Sea level rise can increase the risk of coastal flooding by raising water levels, which means that during high tides or storms, coastal defenses are more likely to be overwhelmed.

Sea level rise can also increase the average height of a “storm surge” – a rise in the sea above normal tide level during a storm, which can cause coastal flooding.

Mapped

For the study, the scientists combined maps of flood projections with those showing possible shoreline changes across Africa.

The analysis looked at threats to African heritage sites under two scenarios.

The first is a “medium” emissions scenario, where global greenhouse gases continue to rise for the next few decades before leveling off in the second half of the century (“RCP4.5”).

The second is a “high” emissions scenario, where global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise until the end of the century (“RCP8.5”).

For each heritage site, researchers estimate the extent of the area exposed to coastal flooding and erosion events “100 years” at present, as well as in 2050 and 2100. (“100 years” is a term used to describe an event that is so severe that currently it has only a 1% chance of occurring in any given year.)

The map below shows the results for each heritage site. On the graph, the color illustrates the percentage of the total site area that is exposed to coastal flooding and erosion (yellow represents less than 25%; orange represents less than 50%; purple represents less than 75 % and dark blue represents more than 75%). Meanwhile, gray is used to show unaffected sites.

African heritage sites threatened by climate change. Data source: Vousdoukas et al. (2022). Map by Tom Prater for Carbon Brief.

The research finds that the number of cultural and natural heritage sites at risk from coastal flooding and erosion is projected to triple by 2050, from 56 to 191 in a medium emissions scenario and 198 in an emissions scenario high.

In the second half of the century, the number of sites exposed to coastal flooding and erosion is expected to peak and stabilize, according to the research. However, the extent of the exposed area at each site is expected to continue to increase.

By the end of the century, the average exposed area of ​​each site is expected to be 6.5 times greater in a medium emissions scenario and 9.5 times greater in a high emissions scenario.

The research reveals that several African countries will see all of their cultural and natural heritage sites threatened by 2100 under either scenario. These countries include Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Western Sahara, Libya, Mozambique, Mauritania and Namibia.

A cultural site at risk in Cameroon is the Lobé waterfalls, a unique set of waterfalls reaching 20 meters in height that flow directly into the Atlantic Ocean.

The waterfalls “represent a solid basis for the symbolic beliefs of the Batanga, Maabi and Pygmee peoples who live nearby and associate the falls with various cultural rites”, according to UNESCO.

“Erasing Our History”

Findings show that protecting Africa’s heritage sites requires “meaningful climate action”, says study author Dr Nick Simpson, postdoctoral researcher at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town. He tells Carbon Brief:

“We have shown that if climate change mitigation is successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from a high emissions pathway to a moderate emissions pathway, the number of exposed sites can be reduced by 25% by 2050. This would represent a significant saving in terms of loss and damage for the legacy of climate change.

“Loss and damage” is a term used to describe the inevitable consequences of climate change, such as the loss of human life during extreme weather events.

(The concept of loss and damage featured prominently at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, where developing countries called on wealthy economies to take on more responsibility.)

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The research also highlights the need for adaptation measures to protect African heritage sites from climate impacts, adds Simpson:

“There is an urgent need to invest in the adaptation of heritage to climate change. Hybrid protections that include ecological infrastructure, such as rock sills combined with salt marshes, seagrass beds or restored mangroves, can be effective protections for exposed sites.

“But technical solutions will only address one dimension of risk. Improving local and indigenous governance can additionally provide enabling conditions for site protection.

The findings have “implications for people living along the African coast”, says Dr Frederick Dapilah, a climate researcher at the Simon Diedong University of Business and Integrated Development Studies in Ghana, who was not involved. in the study. He tells Carbon Brief:

“Growing attention is being paid to loss and damage resulting from climate change at local and global scales. Therefore, [this study] is crucial. This shows that human-induced climate change could lead to the loss of economic or tangible and intangible cultural heritage as well as indigenous local knowledge along the African coast.

Research suggests Africa ‘bears the brunt’ of climate impacts, adds Oladosu Adenike, a young climate activist from Nigeria. She tells Carbon Brief:

“In Africa, our natural and cultural heritage defines us – it tells our story and can trace our history. Once lost, it cannot be replaced or restored.

“How to adapt to a lost heritage? Ultimately, lost cultural and natural heritage could mean undone history. Likewise, a lost cultural and natural heritage could mean the erasure of our history.

Vousdoukas, M. et al. (2022) African Heritage Sites Threatened by Coastal Flooding and Erosion as Sea Level Rise Accelerates, Nature Climate Change, doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01280-1

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