Protecting World Heritage Sites from the ravages of climate change

November 11, 2009

Glaciers are melting away, rivers are heating up, plant and animal species are moving beyond the ranges of their natural habitats: the environment is already sensing the initial effects of climate change, according to UNESCO's World Climate Report. But how do climatic changes affect historic architectural structures? Is our world cultural heritage getting damaged- or even destroyed? How can we protect our shared cultural legacy? Our failure to respond in time comes at what cost? Researchers are studying these and other issues in the just launched EU project known as "Climate for Culture." The European Union granted 5 million euros to fund the research plan. It is bringing together 30 partners from 16 nations in Europe and North Africa in joint collaboration; among them are the Fraunhofer Institutes for Building Physics IBP and for Silicate Research ISC as well as the Fraunhofer Center for Central and Eastern Europe MOEZ. IBP is the coordinator of the project.

The effects of climate change on selected UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe and North Africa will be studied over a period of 5 years - including, for example: the historic old towns of Wismar and Stralsund on the Baltic; Schönbrunn Castle in Vienna; the pyramids of Saqqara in Egypt, and Venice, which lays at peril from rising sea levels. "The intention is not only to generate precise and integrated assessments of actual damage cultural heritage sites caused by the influence of climate change. In fact, the goal also includes developing and implementing sustainable and preventative strategies," explains project manager Johanna Leissner. The researchers are applying new simulation techniques so that they can also evaluate the regional effects of climate change. The techniques interface with each other using building simulation software. Through this process, early prevention strategies can be customized to the individual cultural heritage sites under threat.

Researchers at IBP are investigating how climate change can influence the Bavarian royal castles of Ludwig II - such as Schloss Linderhof, the Renatus chapel in Lustheim and Königshaus in Schachen. Then the next step is to create designs that safeguard these priceless structures - and their bounty of artistic fixtures and elements - at an early stage.

"The Bavarian royal castles were not designed for the several thousands of tourists who come through to visit each day," explains Ralf Kilian of IBP. With the floods of visitors also comes an overabundance of moisture. As a result, mold. Over the next few years, problems like this one may get even worse: As temperatures rise due to global warming, more and more moisture infiltrates the building spaces. Innovative, energy-saving solutions have to be found now in order to preserve the architecture and the artwork.

The "Climate for Culture" project starts with a kick-off event on November 9, 2009 in Munich's Pinakothek galleries. Scientists will be there to convey various perspectives and express their viewpoints on climate change.


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