A UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) designation identifies, celebrates and helps to protect the most precious places on planet Earth.
Thanks to a dedicated team of geologists and other experts, the majestic Dolomites in Italy are included on that list.
The nine Dolomite mountain groups span 350,900 acres (142,000 hectares) with 220,000 acres (89,000 hectares) of border areas, for a total 570,900 acres (231,000 hectares). They extend over five northern Italian provinces: Trento, Bolzano, Belluno, Pordenone and Udine.
AAPG member Piero Gianolla, who has spent years studying the Dolomites, served as scientific coordinator for the official “Working Group” that supported the WHS nomination.
He is a professor at the Earth Sciences Department of The Univerity of Ferrara, Italty, where he teaches mapping geology and basin analysis.
Gianolla’s research includes sequence stratigraphy and paleoclimatological and sedimentological investigation of carbonate platforms and mixed basins. Importantly, he leads field trips for geologists to the Dolomites.
The first suggestion to nominate the Dolomites for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List was made in 1992 by noted Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner and the Mountain Wilderness group he helped found in 1987.
It took another 10 years for the campaign to gather enough political support to get off the ground, Gianolla said. A final push in 2004 was supported by the direct participation of the five provinces.
“I started my collaboration with the Working Group more or less at the beginning of 2005,” he recalled.
“They asked me to investigate the potential of the geological aspects in respect to the nomination, and to help the group establish coherent boundaries between the serial property,” he added.
In the initial nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2005-07, “I understood that the geology and the landscape beauty were the strongest arguments,” Gianolla explained.
“My work was therefore to define what geological aspects of the Dolomites had a global relevance,” he said. “So I started an accurate comparative analysis with other localities in the world.”
Gianolla found the Dolomites had a unique geological heritage, as shown by several features of outstanding value, including:
“Also, the importance of the Dolomites for earth sciences development was evident,” he noted.
The Dolomites heritage site, made up of nine different core areas, shows a practically continuous sequence of Upper Palaeozoic and Mesozoic rocks that documents 200 million years of Earth history in a small and easily accessible area, Gianolla said.
“In particular, the continental successions of the Permian and most of all the marine successions of the Triassic are a worldwide reference area for researchers and specialists,” he noted.
Significant intervals of the Triassic have been historically defined in these areas, for example: the Ladinian (term deriving from Ladinia), the Fassanian (from the Val di Fassa) and the Cordevolian (from the Cordevole Valley).
Gianolla said the sites give the perception of geological and biological evolution in time together with a unique preservation of the original palaeo-environments, spectacularly exposed and preserving their original relationships and geometries.
“This allows an immersive experience unrivaled by any other place,” he said. “Its fossil 'cliffs,' with atolls older than 200 million years, are famous throughout the world, so perfectly are they preserved in their entire structure and beauty.
“Within the various areas that form this site, there are also a great number of fossiliferous sites of world-class importance for bio-chronostratigraphy and for palaeoecology studies,” he said.
The Dolomites are an area of reference at worldwide level for the Triassic period because of the high sedimentation rates and the enormous variety of depositional facies and environments.
“The abundant documentation in fossils makes this site one of the world reference areas for the biostratigraphy of the Triassic Tethys and testifies, in an outstanding way, to the biological recovery after the most severe extinction in the Earth’s history at the end of the Permian Epoch,” Gianolla noted.
Finally, the Dolomites are the type area of the mineral dolomite, first described in the 18th century, whose occurrence is still enigmatic.
“The excellent outcrops,” Gianolla said, “provide a huge natural laboratory for the solution of the 'dolomite problem.'”
After the first WHS nomination moved to a new cycle of evaluation in 2007, the Working Group was asked to review the nomination only for geological and landscape criteria, Gianolla said.
“This is why I became the scientific coordinator of the project,” he said, “and, of course, responsible for the geology and cartography.
“The problems were mainly in management,” he added. “The Dolomite mountain groups included in the proposal are in one of the most populated areas of the Alps – and one of the most important tourist areas of the world.”
In addition, the Dolomites are in five provinces and three regions where residents speak four different and official languages – Italian, German, Friulan and Ladin.
“You cannot imagine the complexity in terms of organization,” Gianolla said. “Anyway, with the Working Group we made a fantastic, hard effort. And at the end we reached the goal.”
On June 26, 2009, in Seville, Spain, the Dolomites were officially added to the World Heritage List.
Specifically, the committee found the Dolomites an outstanding example of WHS Criterion, which includes the world’s best areas representing major stages of earth history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, and significant geomorphic or physiographic features.
After the WHS designation was announced, Gianolla began giving seminars and workshops to raise awareness about the Dolomites in local communities.
“In particular, I have tried to make known the importance of geological heritage to the general public and to local administrators,” he explained.
“I also have organized specific workshops and field trips in the Dolomites, to present the geo-heritage to the Italian and international scientific community,” he said. Together with the architect Cesare Micheletti, responsible for describing the landscape values presented in the nomination, and Mario Panizza, responsible for the geomorphological aspect of the nomination, he also has published brochures and other educational materials about the Dolomites.
“I have dedicated a lot of time to this project because I think it is an opportunity for the local people to understand the importance of the territory where they live,” Gianolla said, and added:
“In general, I think what we did is important because we have helped protect for future generations a unique geological landscape, and one of the most beautiful mountain areas of the planet.”
From the Declaration of Outstanding Universal Value, World Heritage Committee, Seville 26.06.2009:
“The nine components of The Dolomites World Heritage property protect a series of highly distinctive mountain landscapes that are of exceptional natural beauty. Their dramatic vertical and pale colored peaks in a variety of distinctive sculptural forms is extraordinary in a global context.
“This property also contains an internationally important combination of earth science values.
“The quantity and concentration of highly varied limestone formations is extraordinary in a global context, whilst the superbly exposed geology provides an insight into the recovery of marine life in the Triassic period, after the greatest extinction event recorded in the history of life on Earth.
“The sublime, monumental and colorful landscapes of the Dolomites have also long attracted hosts of travelers and a history of scientific and artistic interpretations of its values.”