Observing heritage sites from space for the sake of preservation has a long history. In the early 1920s, scientists were already using aerial photographs to map archaeological sites and to help detect changes not visible from the ground, such as buried roads and other remains.

In 1972, the World Heritage Convention was adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference, and that same year remote sensing from civilian Earth observation satellites began on a routine basis. As we approach the 50th anniversary of these two global developments, a growing number of countries and organizations are pursuing closer relationships between heritage practitioners and space technology specialists.

Steadily improving satellite imagery and other remote sensing techniques allow authorities to identify potential threats to sites, such as land use changes, ground instability, logging, construction of illegal roads and destruction of heritage buildings, in time to plan and implement mitigation strategies. Collaborations with different organizations allow us to put these technologies to good use.

UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA) work together to use space technologies and the data they provide to monitor natural and cultural heritage sites. We are pleased to feature an interview with the Director General of the ESA, Dr Josef Aschbacher, in this issue.

The International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage (HIST), a UNESCO Category 2 centre in China, is another valuable partner. In this issue, colleagues from HIST share the experience of monitoring two World Heritage properties: the serial site Silk Roads: The Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan); and the Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area in Sichuan Province, China, after the 2017 earthquake.

Through a partnership with the Operational Satellite Applications Programme of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR-UNOSAT), we monitor the state of conservation of World Heritage sites at risk due to natural hazards or conflict. In this issue we learn about damage assessments at sites in Nepal, Iraq, Mali and Yemen, and receive a thorough account of the impact of war on Syrian World Heritage. We learn how this information was compiled and analyzed for publication, providing a foundation to address the complex challenges facing the sites in their reconstruction and recovery.

We are also pleased to bring you an exploration of shifting land cover dynamics in African sites, such as Taï National Park (Côte d’Ivoire) and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda); and the fascinating satellite tagging of whales, explained by the International Whaling Commission. These articles further illustrate the benefits to conservation that can be derived from remote sensing technology.

Mechtild Rössler

Director, UNESCO World Heritage Centre

In Focus

Travelling through space and time: remote sensing of natural World Heritage sites 

Remote sensing tools provide an opportunity to monitor and identify threats to World Heritage, and changes within World Heritage sites, thus enhancing the ability of the international community to achieve its responsibilities to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

Space Technologies for Heritage: two case studies

HIST is dedicated to developing and using space technologies for the identification, conservation, monitoring and management of World Heritage sites, to support UNESCO and Member States in implementing the World Heritage Convention.

Damage assessment on World Heritage sites by UNOSAT

As UNOSAT celebrates twenty years of operations, monitoring World Heritage remains a priority in its efforts to apply geospatial information technology to building peace and resilience.

Mapping land cover dynamics with Copernicus

Monitoring land cover dynamics in World Heritage sites and Protected Areas in general helps conservationists and policy-makers to evaluate the success or failure of management practices and may help to anticipate future conservation problems.


UNOSAT reveals damage to Syria’s cultural heritage

An upcoming UNESCO-UNITAR publication – Ten years of conflict, the state of cultural heritage in Syria – will assess, through satellite images, the destruction the Syrian conflict has inflicted to date on the country’s cultural heritage.



Josef Aschbacher Director General, European Space Agency (ESA)

Advisory Bodies

ICOMOS: Aerial and satellite remote sensing for World Heritage monitoring Conventions Studying whales at the IWC: from post-war binoculars to satellites and space.



World Oceans Day: How Marine World Heritage builds resilience; UNESCO delivers crucial support to biodiversity in emergencies; New research shows crucial role of World Heritage marine sites in fighting climate change.

In Danger

Mali and UNESCO receive symbolic reparation for destruction of Timbuktu mausoleums.


World Heritage Volunteers announce design competition results.