'Future is bleak': Famous sites set to disappear by 2050

Rapa Nui, Kiribati, Edinburgh and Arnhem Land (clockwise from left) are all likely to be severely impacted by climate change. Source: Getty
Rapa Nui, Kiribati, Edinburgh and Arnhem Land (clockwise from left) are all likely to be severely impacted by climate change. (Getty)

What do the world-famous Moai stone statues at Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and spectacular ancient sites in Edinburgh have in common?

Devastatingly, it's that they might soon both disappear from the face of the Earth, battered and bruised by extreme weather events induced by the climate crisis.

Hoping to slow their demise, a team of world experts met in South Australia on Tuesday to brainstorm how to save the world's history.

The Flinders University symposium evaluated where the world now stands after commitments made by world leaders at the COP26 talks in Glasgow.

Destruction of archeological sites is nothing new, UNESCO has listed 52 of them as as "in danger", but what's changing is climate change is now becoming a bigger threat than war or development.

The impact of rising sea levels was highlighted as a major concern by Flinders University archeologist Dr Ania Kotarba-Morley when she spoke at the conference.

"Forty percent of the world’s population live on the coast, and majority of heritage sites therefore are located on the coasts," she told Yahoo News.

"With sea level rises, as is projected in IPCC report, by 2050 they'll not be many left.

"Whole cities will go underwater. The future is bleak I’m afraid."

Entire nations set to disappear amid climate crisis

While Western minds tend to favour the cultural significance of brick and mortar sites like churches and temples, Kotarba-Morley has found that many Micronesian nations revere landscapes instead.

With some islands set to disappear underwater by 2050, scientists are no longer looking at how to adapt to the worsening circumstances.

They are focusing on mitigating the loss of culture, as entire nations are reclaimed by the ocean.

A map showing sites listed in danger by the UNHCR.
Many heritage sites have been listed as in danger due to war and development, however climate change will likely impact many destinations in years to come. (UNESCO)

“Nations will have to relocate but all of those sites, intangible, tangible, sacred sites, everything will have to be relocated," Kotarba-Morley said.

“The attachment to landscape, the tombs of their ancestors, their sacred places, their temples, they’ll be all gone.”

Once life on Kiribati becomes untenable, residents will be relocating to Fiji, a land at least two hours across the Pacific by plane.

The climate refugees will have to adapt to a foreign landscape, cultural setting and language group, then somehow find a way to maintain their ethnic identity.

Future is bleak

While the world's heritage loss received increased focus at COP26 climate talks, reaching net zero by 2050 will likely not be enough to save iconic sites.

Dr Kotarba-Morley remains "terribly depressed" as she lists places future generations will likely never see.

  • By 2050, if current heating rates continue, up to 80% of the Maldives could be lost.

  • 4,000km away in Zanzibar, mediaeval stone towns will be reclaimed by the ocean in the next 80 years.

  • Sumatra's rainforests will be decimated by 2030 as global heating continues.

  • The Nan Madol ceremonial centre in eastern Micronesia could also be destroyed, despite the construction of mangroves and sea walls. The list goes on.

Up to 80 per cent of the Maldives could be uninhabitable by 2050. Source: Getty / File
Up to 80% of the Maldives could be uninhabitable by 2050. (Getty)

The world her daughters, aged one and four, will inherit will be drastically different to her own carefree youth.

“My little daughters, when they’re entering adulthood, will they actually be able to go travelling like myself?” she said.

“When I was a young adult, I was travelling around the world visiting all these amazing heritage sites, ecological sites, ancient sites, but by 2050 half of them could be gone."

Watch: Moby's advice for how to live during the climate crisis