Victoria Herrmann is working with community champions to safeguard cultural heritage sites from climate change impacts

The geographer wields data and storytelling in a new effort to preserve the world’s most iconic, history-drenched locations for future generations.

Cultural heritage lies at the heart of Victoria Herrmann’s latest project, but she began her journey as a National Geographic Explorer without much, if any, knowledge of the subject. She describes the Victoria of six years ago—despite already having completed an education in geography and assisted with climate security research in the Arctic—as simply a climate advocate who “didn't really engage with historic preservationists or cultural heritage practitioners.”

“I thought cultural heritage was just a phrase that people threw around,” she admits.

However, a conversation with community climate champion Peter Taliva'a in American Samoa’s Aunu’u Island stands out to her as a moment when the connecting threads between climate change and culture became concrete. He talked about taro, a root vegetable that is, as Herrmann describes, “so much more than just a vegetable or food. It is this connection from one generation to the next; this spiritual point that connects the very earth to humans in cultural ceremonies.” 

Rising sea levels have been intruding into Aunu’u’s taro plantations, the salt water killing crops and making those ceremonies and celebrations around taro more difficult to practice. 

This conversation was among the first of hundreds to come out of Herrmann’s first Society-funded grant in 2016, America’s Eroding Edges. The project brought her and research partner Eli Keene across the country’s shoreline communities, interviewing more than 350 local leaders about how climate change was affecting their communities and ways to move forward. In these conversations, Herrmann noticed them quickly moving past topics she expected, like infrastructure needs, and instead sharing how climate was impacting staples of their everyday life: the foods they were eating, the plants they cultivated year after year, their historic gathering spaces and sacred grounds.

Intimate stories like these, about people’s histories, identities, and livelihoods and their subsequent loss due to climate change, were Herrmann’s biggest takeaway from the project and underpin much of her advocacy today. “Climate change, at its core, is a story about losing the things that make us who we are,” she emphasizes, “and the way we tell this story and find climate change solutions has to include our history and our culture and these intimate parts of us.”

Now, Herrmann has set her sights on helping protect culture and history all over the globe from the threats of a warming world. In her recently-announced project, Preserving Legacies: A Future for Our Past, she is leading a team effort to anticipate the effects of climate change on cultural heritage sites and ensure their protection by empowering local communities to achieve place-and-people-based climate adaptation plans.

Climate change is the fastest-growing threat to many of these places: one in three natural sites and one in six cultural heritage sites are in danger of climate-related destruction. Just this year, severe flooding in Pakistan nearly swept away the ruins of Mohenjo Daro, and a third of glaciers on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list are predicted to be melted by 2050. Herrmann recognizes the hits these places have already taken and warns that more are on the way: “Even if we stop emitting all greenhouse gasses today, there are still unavoidable climate change losses, irreplaceable cultural heritage that we can never get back.”

With Preserving Legacies, Herrmann seeks to minimize these losses. She and her team will synthesize data from global climate models and national weather services to create downscaled models that forecast climate change threats specific to each heritage site. They also plan to provide climate literacy training to empower local leadership to harness this knowledge in the creation of site adaptation plans.

The need for site-specific climate models stems from a larger problem with big data, Herrmann explains. Global climate models are general in scope, and they work well when advocating for sweeping climate policies, but they're not optimal for making decisions on a local scale. “You can't really decide how to spend limited resources on adapting one city if you only have the picture for the North American continent—the same is true for cultural heritage sites,” illustrates Herrmann. Downscaled climate models like these are an effort to make specialized data available and accessible to those who can give heritage sites a fighting chance in the years to come.

Making the models accurately requires assessing weather and climate data. Herrmann puts it this way: “You can think of climate as a personality. It changes throughout your life, but it's more or less the same. Weather is more like your mood; it changes from day to day.” When applied to a specific location, analyzing the two in tandem can produce more nuanced insights. This could be a game-changing tool for site custodians as they assess whether to adapt their site to forecasted threats or begin documenting it for future generations.

What really excites Herrmann about Preserving Legacies is its community-led and community-owned approach. This past fall, her team was on the ground at the project’s first heritage site, the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Philippines, where they met with site partners to draw up a project roadmap to hit the ground running in 2023. Next month, they will travel to the city of Petra, Jordan to do the same. “We want to make sure that this is truly co-created from day one,” Herrmann asserts, “and that there is a relationship built on trust between our global project team and the site custodians.”

Local leaders and custodians will be joined by community members as partners in the project. Each site is bringing together 30 community stakeholders to collectively map out the values of their site and ensure that the aspects that matter most to community members are incorporated into each site’s adaptation plans. Artists in residence—photographers, videographers, and fine artists—at each location will document the process of preservation and share their stories with their community and eventually with the rest of the world.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras and Petra, Jordan will serve as two pilot locations for the project, with eight other sites to follow in 2024, including Angkor Archeological Park in Cambodia and the Border Fields in the United States and Mexico. If all goes well, Herrmann hopes to expand Preserving Legacies to hundreds of cultural heritage sites on every continent. She envisions the project spanning decades, democratizing climate data and safeguarding every site of cultural significance on the planet. “That is my big goal,” she says, “that it reaches everyone.”

Preserving Legacies fits right alongside America’s Eroding Edges in the larger course of her work, seeking to recognize how cherished places and ways of living are in danger of being lost to a threat that grows ever more urgent. But Herrmann does not exclusively focus on the loss—instead she strikes a balance. “In everything I do, I hold loss in one hand and hope in the other,” she reflects. “There's already damage…but climate change projections are just that: models with lots of different lines that we can choose today. Every degree that we avert can lead to a better future.” 

For Herrmann, loss and hope are dual through lines that can be traced beyond her professional work and into her own family history. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and they came to the U.S. through a refugee camp after losing their entire families,” she shares. “They came holding that loss of everything, but also the hope of a new life and a better world.” She cites her grandfather as being the most hopeful person she has ever met and the catalyst behind her work: “His hope for humanity inspired me to commit my career to the biggest existential threat facing our generation.”

That’s why she talks to climate champions like Peter Taliva'a about taro and looks forward to working alongside countless community partners and custodians at cultural heritage sites for Preserving Legacies. Hearing their stories reminds her that no one is alone in the climate fight. “Humans themselves are awe-inspiring,” she says. “We can do pretty incredible things, and you have to believe as a climate champion that we are capable of that.”

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
Learn More

Learn more about Preserving Legacies: A Future for Our Past, supported by Manulife.

For the National Geographic Society: Melissa Zhu is a content strategy coordinator at the Society.