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New tool reveals climate vulnerability of World Heritage properties

by Melissa Lyne 7 Jul 08:49 UTC

Australian scientists have created a world-first tool that can systematically assess climate change risks to all types of World Heritage properties: marine and terrestrial, natural and cultural.

There are nearly 1,100 World Heritage properties, and climate change is their fastest-growing threat.

The Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) was developed by Mr Jon Day at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) and Dr Scott Heron at James Cook University (JCU). The pair are presenting their work at the 43rd international meeting of the World Heritage Committee this month.

"While World Heritage areas are 'the best-of-the best' globally, many are already experiencing significant negative damage," Dr Heron said. "They are vulnerable to climate change impacts such as sea level rise, extreme precipitation, rising temperatures, flooding, coastal erosion, drought, worsening wildfires, and human displacement."

The CVI differs from many other vulnerability assessments as it comprises two distinct stages.

The vulnerability of World Heritage values to physical climate drivers (such as sea level rise) is assessed first.

Then the economic, social and cultural risks for the associated communities—as well as their capacity to adapt—are evaluated.

"The CVI applies a risk-assessment approach that builds upon an existing vulnerability framework used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change," Mr Day said.

"But ours is the first tool that can be specifically applied to both a World Heritage property and its associated communities," he said.

The CVI was first trialled last year in Shark Bay, Western Australia—a World Heritage area known for its outstanding natural features. Extreme marine heat events, increasing storm intensity and air temperature change were identified as the key climate drivers impacting both the World Heritage values and the local community.

The first cultural World Heritage property to apply the CVI was 'The Heart of Neolithic Orkney' in Scotland—a late Stone Age settlement and series of monuments. Increasing storm intensity and frequency, sea-level rise and precipitation change were identified as the key climate drivers impacting these cultural values. However, the capacity of the local community to adapt moderated the risk. The full report was released this week.

The CVI method is currently in a pilot phase, but the two trials so far have successfully demonstrated its value as a rapid yet robust assessment tool.

Planning is now under way for further CVI workshops in Scotland, as well as in Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Australia.

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