EU-funded researchers are designing and testing a systematic approach to defining the risks posed to ancient monuments by climate change – and how to predict and prevent these.

Europe has a particularly rich cultural heritage that forms an inheritance from the past and a legacy for future generations. It enriches our lives, inspires artists, builds shared identities and can bring great economic benefits to local communities.

Yet, while many ancient buildings and artefacts have lasted for millennia to reach us today, their survival is increasingly precarious. Climate change is upon us and it is accelerating. In Europe, more frequent and more extreme weather events can put cultural heritage and the benefits it offers at increased risk in a wide variety of ways.

Increased rainfall, rising sea levels and more frequent storms are a particular danger. They can cause structural damage and boost physical and chemical erosion of stone monuments.

The HERACLES project is designing and testing a systems-based approach for protecting cultural heritage in the face of climate change. It is developing systematic methods of identifying, assessing and evaluating the risks a monument might face and incorporating these into an online ICT platform. As well as the risks, the platform will also offer information on both preventative measures as well as remediation measures when damage has already occurred.

When completed, HERACLES will be a resource for a variety of users, including conservators, municipalities, town planners, government agencies and companies – all those responsible for cultural heritage and involved in its preservation.

“HERACLES is focusing on the Mediterranean as it is of more concern than other parts of Europe,” explains project leader Giuseppina Padeletti of Italy’s National Research Council. “Changes in rainfall are predicted to be more extreme, and the abundance of ancient monuments means the potential losses are high. To assess risks, we use technologies and expertise from satellite surveillance, climatology, hydrology and engineering among many others. To evaluate the impact of risks we need sociologists and economists, and to fix problems we need structural engineers, chemists and material scientists. The challenge for us is to successfully realise a truly ‘holistic’ approach.”

Tailored solutions for specific cases
To validate its methodologies the project is applying them to three cultural heritage sites: in Italy, the medieval walled town of Gubbio, in Crete, the ancient Minoan Palace of Knossos and the castle of Koules in Heraklion.

For example, the Venetian castle of Koules sits at the entrance to the ancient harbour of Heraklion. Open to the sea, it is at risk of both structural and chemical damage from more frequent storms, stronger waves and increased salinity. The fortress is a vital part of the cultural infrastructure of Heraklion, which depends greatly on tourism.

The partners have installed wave monitors and meteorological stations around the castle to monitor these risks and assess their importance. At the same time material scientists are investigating the damage caused by salinity in order to recommend both preventative and remedial actions.

The intention is that the lessons learned and procedures developed at Koules will be applicable to the many thousands of castles that line the Mediterranean coastline and are threatened by climate change.

“HERACLES will produce generic ‘protocols’ for identifying and assessing climate-driven risks,” explains Padeletti. “End-users can then assess the potential socio-economic impacts of the various conservation options open to them. As funding for conservation becomes constrained, so our management tools will help the responsible organisations to make informed choices and prioritise their responses.”

Getting local people involved is also an important element of HERACLES. Monuments can bind communities through common identities and concerns; and they can be significant sources of income and employment in local economies.

“The loss of an ancient monument is a loss for us all – these are unique structures,” says Padeletti. “However, for local people such losses are particularly significant. This is why we are working with municipalities in our case studies to inform local people and make them aware of our work and its significance for their social and economic well-being.”

Source: European Commission – Research and Innovation