From fires in Australia and California to hurricanes in the Caribbean, the effects of climate change on our immediate environment are becoming ever more apparent. Less visible are the threats presented to landmark sites around the world – places like Edinburgh’s cliff-side castle, the monuments of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and the ancient adobe city of Chan Chan, in Peru – that are susceptible to destruction from increasing torrential rains, rising seas, ocean acidification, and more. 

An aerial shot of the Mosque City of Bagerhat in Bangladesh
The Nine Dome Mosque, in the Mosque City of Bagerhat, Bangladesh, is one of the heritage sites under threat, its monuments rapidly decaying due to saltwater flooding and erosion © Google Arts & Culture

In an effort to draw attention to the plight of these endangered landmarks, Google Arts & Culture has debuted a new online collection called Heritage on the Edge, a partnership with CyArk, a non-profit working to create a 3D digital archive of endangered wonders of the world, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a global non-government organisation dedicated to conserving sites of architectural and archaeological significance. 

A surveyor in front of an Easter Island statue
The cliffs under the Moai, or the Easter Island Statues, are eroding due to rising sea levels and increased storms, and the statues will eventually fall into the sea © Google Arts & Culture

With the help of local experts, CyArk went on data-collection expeditions to document each site, using photogrammetry, 3D scanning, drone video capture, and interviews to assess the locations and offer conservation support. So far, the team has completed fieldwork at five landmarks – Rapa Nui, Edinburgh, Chan Chan, Kilwa Kisiwani, on the Swahili Coast of Tanzania, and the Mosque City of Bagerhat, in Bangladesh – and created more than 50 online exhibits, six 360-degree street-view tours, 25 3D models, and two augmented-reality Pocket Gallery models, one of the Nine Dome Mosque in Bangladesh and the other of Gereza Fort in Tanzania. 

A closeup of an adobe statue in Chan Chan, Peru, in front of an adobe wall
The world’s largest adobe city, Chan Chan is being washed away by increasing torrential rain, but because of rising groundwater levels, a roof would only exacerbate the problem, creating a dangerous microclimate © Google Arts & Culture

“Above all, the project is a call to action,” ICOMOS president Dr Toshiyuki Kono writes in a blog post introducing the collection. “The effects of climate change on our cultural heritage mirror wider impacts on our planet, and require a strong and meaningful response. While actions at individual sites can prevent loss locally, the only sustainable solution is systemic change and the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania
Once the wealthiest city in East Africa, Tanzania's Kilwa Kisiwani is now at risk from sea-level rise, mangrove depletion, and ocean acidification © Google Arts & Culture

Google’s source data is accessible to restorers, researchers, educators, and preservationists, and the tech company provided local training for on-site heritage managers to aid in their work. 

A wide view of Edinburgh with the castle in the background and a statue of a man on horseback in the foreground
Scotland's biggest tourist attraction, Edinburgh Castle could collapse from rapidly increasing rainfall and groundwater flooding © Google Arts & Culture

“Heritage on the Edge collects stories of loss, but also of hope and resilience,” Kono writes. “They remind us that all our cultural heritage, including these iconic World Heritage Sites, are more than just tourist destinations. They are places of great national, spiritual and cultural significance.”

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