Coastal erosion threatens Libyan archaeological sites with damage and deterioration

Mohammed El-Said
4 Min Read

Researchers have warned that archaeological sites along the Libyan coastline are at risk of damage or loss due to increased coastal erosion, according to a study published April 12 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The coast of Cyrenaica in eastern Libya extends from the Gulf of Sirte to the current Egyptian-Libyan border, with a long history of human settlement dating back to the Paleolithic era, and therefore it hosts many important and often unstudied archaeological sites. However, the coast is also subject to high rates of erosion which threatens to damage or even erase many of these important sites.

The study’s lead author, Keren Westley, Research Fellow for Threatened Marine Archaeology in the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster in Ireland, said the most important finding of the study was the confirmation that extensive coastal erosion around the ancient ports of Tocra and Apollonia and Ptolemais in eastern Libya was widespread.  

“This is not a new observation, other researchers have noted it before. But what we’ve done is map and quantify it, to see exactly where the most dangerous erosion process is occurring, how fast it’s happening and how it might affect these archaeological sites in the future.”

Westley added, “The results of the study also reveal that the past decade witnessed one of the highest rates of erosion. Also, there is a strong possibility that sea level rise will exacerbate erosion in the near future as well, as the problem gets worse if sea level rise accelerates, which is expected to happen if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

The authors stress that the impact of the erosion process on the Libyan coast is significant and could worsen in the future. Therefore, the research highlights the urgent need to support Libyan researchers in mitigating the damage caused to these irreplaceable and endangered heritage sites.

Westley explained that reaching the results required the use of satellite images taken at different times from the fifties and sixties of the last century to the present day. By comparing the location of the shoreline and the backshore erosion visible on the images, the team could determine where the erosion was occurring, and then calculate how fast it was progressing.

The study combined historical and recent records of Cyrene Beach using aerial and satellite imagery and field observations to assess coastal erosion patterns near important archaeological sites of Apollonia, Ptolemais and Tocra, the team identified extensive beach erosion and increasing rates of erosion in recent years, which are likely related to human activities such as sand mining and accelerated urbanization.

The authors stress the need for rational management and mitigation plans to protect these sites, as well as the need to raise awareness of the factors that exacerbate coastal erosion since some of the problems are likely to be caused by activities such as beach sand extraction. 

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Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor for the Daily News Egypt with over 8 years of experience as a journalist. His work appeared in the Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other regional and international media outlets. El-Said graduated with a bachelor's degree and MSc in Human Geography, and he is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Cairo University. He also had a diploma in media translation from the American University in Cairo.
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