“Karstification in evaporites” becomes a World Heritage Site

As of 19 September, the sixth Italian natural site on the World Heritage List is the “Evaporitic karst and caves of the Northern Apennines”, as sanctioned by the World Heritage Committee meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This recognition once again shows appreciation for geological heritage; what are the points of contact between this recognition and that awarded to the Dolomites in 2009? We asked architect Cesare Micheletti, who coordinated the nomination process and who, in collaboration with geologist Piero Gianolla, had overseen the scientific coordination of the Dolomites’ candidacy for inclusion on the World Heritage List.

Carsismo. Ph. Graziano Agolini

Ph. Graziano Agolini

Bearing witness to two extraordinary geological events

Architect Micheletti, what makes the phenomenon of “karst and caves in the evaporites of the Northern Apennines” unique, compared to the many karst phenomena that characterise, for example, limestone rocks?

“There are several aspects that make this phenomenon unique: first of all, it is the combination of two of the most extraordinary geological events in the Earth’s history. The first, dating back 200 million years, was the opening of Pangaea with the formation of the Tethys ocean, and the second, which occurred six million years ago, was an ecological upheaval that affected the Mediterranean Sea and is known as the Messinian Salinity Crisis. In both cases, the evaporation of seawater caused the deposition of large amounts of gypsum and salt, and today, the outcroppings of these two evaporitic formations are close to each other. During hot, humid periods, the penetration of rainwater created extraordinary shapes, which are very rarely preserved and almost always in desert areas, unlike those created by karstification in limestones, which are harder and more resistant.”

Do these phenomena also reveal a history of past climate changes?

“Definitely. Caves are places that can preserve highly detailed records of all climatic variations, because they are more stable environments and therefore able to retain more reliable information.”

A key site for earth sciences

This recognition brings the number of Sites making up the Natural Heritage “family” in Italy to six. What points of contact do you identify with the values that led to the recognition of the Dolomites?

“More than one point of contact can be identified starting with the value for the history of Earth Sciences that characterises the new UNESCO site. As in the case of the Dolomites region, in fact, the Apennine site was the first in the world to be studied for those values now recognised by UNESCO, thanks to the cultural ferment that characterised Italy as early as the 17th century, as well as the proximity of important universities. Even today, 90% of publications on the subject refer to these areas, which, like the Dolomites, constitute a scientific laboratory within arm’s reach, and relate not only the history of the Earth but also the evolution of scientific thought and research.”

A serial but unified property

It is a complex property, composed of a variety of karst morphologies, more than 900 caves and evaporitic resurgences; it is also a serial property, spread over four provinces. Will its management therefore require strategies similar to those adopted for the serial property of the Dolomites?

“In this case, I would say that the analogy is only formal. As the key areas are partly underground, they generate less conflict with human activities, and mass usage is not physically possible. They also fall under the coordination of a single Region.”

This was an important achievement for the Emilia-Romagna Region, experts from the collaborating universities, technicians, and all the entities that worked on the submission. Another source of satisfaction for you following the Dolomites’ recognition…

“Not only for me, but also for the rest of the team that was there both in 2009 and in 2023, especially Loredana Ponticelli and Dolomiti Project geologist Stefano Furin, along with Emiliano Oddone.”