Kate Yoder

It’s not just Venice. Climate change imperils ancient treasures everywhere.

Saltwater rushed into St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice last week, submerging marble tombs, intricate mosaics, and centuries-old columns. A man was spotted swimming across St. Mark’s Square, normally bustling with tourists, as the highest tide in 50 years swept through.The “Floating City” of bridges, vaporetti, and gondolas is hardly a stranger to high tides. Venetians are accustomed to acqua alta, or “high water,” arriving in the fall. But as the city’s foundation sinks and sea levels rise, the floods are getting worse. The basilica has submerged six times over the last 1,200 years. Tellingly, four of those instances were in the last two decades.The rising saltwater presents a threat to the city’s prized architecture, including wall paintings and frescoes from the Renaissance. Early estimates put the damage around $1 billion so far.

It’s a vivid testament to the risks climate change poses to many of the world’s cultural treasures. In a fitting irony, minutes after Venice’s regional council rejected measures to fund renewable energy and replace diesel buses with cleaner ones, the council’s chamber was swept by floodwaters. Since 2003, the city has been working on an infrastructure project known as Mose (as in Moses) for protection against high tides, but it’s still not up and running, having been bogged down in scandal, cost overruns, and other delays. Venice has plenty of company — some 86 percent of UNESCO World Heritage sites like Venice in coastal regions of the Mediterranean are at risk from flooding and erosion, according to a study last year in the journal Nature.

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The Amazon, Alaska, and of course California — more of the world is going up in flames, and with climate change, that progression shows no sign of stopping. Are we reckoning with a new age of fire? Is this the Pyrocene?

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