Giant waves crashing into the world's coasts, destroying cultural landmarks that have existed for centuries. The Statue of Liberty being engulfed by water and lost to the ocean. Halfway around the globe, the Leaning Tower of Pisa not just slanting but drowning.
Scenarios such as these don't only exist in flicks like The Day After Tomorrow—climate change could make them a reality.
One-fifth of the 720 UNESCO World Heritage sites are at risk because of rising sea levels, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters. With a mere three-degree rise in temperature—something U.N. scientists say is well within the range of expected warming—landmarks such as the Tower of London and the Sydney Opera House would be lost as oceans rose.
While the study focused on how many sites would be threatened following 2,000 years of rising sea levels, the authors found the first cultural losses will happen a lot sooner if nothing is done to prevent climate change–induced flooding.
"It's relatively safe to say that we will see the first impacts at these sites in the 21st century," Ben Marzeion, lead author of the study, told The Guardian. "Typically when people talk about climate change it's about the economic or environmental consequences, how much it's going to cost. We wanted to take a look at the cultural implications."
The scientists involved in the study simulated a 2.3-meter rise in sea level for every degree that global temperature increased over the course of a few centuries. They found that approximately 140 of the sites surveyed would be underwater. “The archeologists of the future will need to search for major parts of our cultural heritage in the oceans,” Marzeion said.
A study that projects calamity 2,000 years in the future may not seem like one to cause people today to worry, but the researchers said that these are conservative estimates that don’t factor in storm surges like those that struck the eastern coastline of the United Kingdom in December 2013. "We consider 2,000 years a short enough time to be of relevance for the cultural heritage we cherish," Anders Levermann, coauthor of the study, said in a statement.
A rise in sea levels wouldn't just affect cultural landmarks; it would also swallow up portions of land and leave millions of people homeless.
“A majority of the population will eventually need to leave their home islands in the long-term, so most of their culture could be entirely lost sooner or later if the warming trend is not stopped,” Marzeion told redOrbit. “If that sea-level rise occurred today, more than 600 million people would be affected and would have to find a new home.”