Climate change is the fastest growing threat to ancient Greek cultural monuments and heritage sites all across the world.
Whether the threat is from more frequent wildfires, coastal erosion, flooding, changed rainfall patterns, or impacts of changes in heat and humidity on building materials, climate change impacts will be critical for the preservation and management of pretty much all monuments in the future.
According to the Greek Ministry of Culture, “immediate, widespread and systematic risk from the effects of climate change is not recorded” at the ancient cultural monuments in the country.
However, the Ministry accepts that there are “existing climate risks, which affect the wider areas in which the monuments/archaeological sites are located,” due to extreme weather events such as floods, fires, rising water levels, and erosion.
Last year the archeological site of Olympia, the home of the Olympic Games in antiquity, was threatened by a wildfire. In 2020, the Lion Gate, the iconic stone archway that serves as the main entrance of the citadel of Mycenae in the Peloponnese, was blackened—but not damaged—by a wildfire.
The extreme weather phenomena seen in recent years, as well as air pollution and acid rain, have created structural problems in the walls and temples of the Acropolis, which is still one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Greece.
Efforts to preserve and protect the Acropolis and its monuments have been ongoing for decades, a process that has been accelerated since the mid-1970s.
But the country has a vast number of other, also priceless, archaeological sites which are completely exposed to the elements.
Take for example the archaeological site at Delos island. The director of the French School of Athens, Alexandre Farnoux, pointed out recently that the damage caused by the sea, wind, and rain has clearly accelerated in the last ten years.
Farnous said, according to Reuters, there has been “serious damage to the walls, especially sensitive walls made of limestone, including the disappearance of joins and the penetration of water into the foundations of buildings.”
He noted that the rains of recent years have raised the water table, which, together with rising sea levels, has “caused the water to destructively encroach on the archaeological site.”
Greece’s efforts to address the danger of climate change for cultural monuments
Greece, being the repository of a huge wealth of Cultural Heritage, both tangible and intangible, has been at the forefront of the international efforts to address the issue.
Athens organized an International Conference on the “Impacts of Climate Change on Cultural Heritage” in June 2019 and tabled a proposal for coordinated action to protect cultural and natural heritage from the impact of climate change at the UN Climate Action Summit that took place in New York City in September of that year.
The Ministry of Culture has also put together an interdisciplinary committee of experts who are responsible for drawing up a national action plan to tackle the impact of climate change on the country’s archaeological sites and historic monuments.
However, the protection of cultural monuments cannot be addressed by a single nation. A coordinated approach is required among numerous nations.
Greek MEP Georgoulis calls for a coordinated EU response
Alexis Georgoulis, MEP SYRIZA – PS, member of the Culture Committee of the European Parliament and co-founder of the Friendship Group of Cultural Creators of the European Parliament, is at the forefront of efforts to forge a common approach by the EU.
He recently highlighted the issue of protecting Mediterranean Cultural Heritage monuments in a question to the European Commission.
“Few national climate change programs across Europe include targeted measures for heritage sites, and this makes these sites more vulnerable, especially in the Mediterranean,” Georgoulis said.
The Greek MEP asked the Commission to create a special fund to finance projects aimed at protecting cultural heritage sites on the coasts of the Mediterranean that are at risk of flooding and erosion due to climate change.
He also asked Brussels to set up a team of expert scientists to collect data and develop solutions.
“The recent IPCC report describes the Mediterranean as a climate risk ‘hotspot,’ one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, facing accelerating risks due to climate change,” Georgoulis said.
He noted that a recent survey of UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in low-lying Mediterranean coastal areas carried out by the University of Kiel showed that, in the coming years, these sites will be increasingly threatened by coastal erosion due to rising sea levels.
“Numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as European Cultural Heritage Sites, that have played an important role in [the] history and culture of Europe and symbolize our common past and, therefore, our common future, are located on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the EU needs to act to protect them,” Georgoulis added.