Climate Change and the Historic Environment
Our climate is changing and we need to adapt to these changes, to become more resilient to the challenges that result, and to make the most of the opportunities the situation presents. There is international recognition of the importance of preparedness for this in the heritage sector, resulting in a number of UNESCO publications on the subject. Historic England’s own publication record also reflects a long-standing awareness of the impacts of a changing climate. In summer 2016 the organisation submitted its Climate Change Adaptation Report to Defra under the National Adaptation Reporting Power, which enables Government to require public service organisations to produce reports on what they are doing as they prepare to face the issue.
The report considers the impacts of the changing climate upon Historic England as an organisation, whether in its management of personnel, facilities and equipment; or with regard to its role as champion of England’s heritage. It looks at how the organisation has been affected by weather-related events in the past, how the climate is projected to change in the future, and what impact this will have on our work; it identifies the most important resulting risks and opportunities. It also outlines how Historic England can begin to adapt to the future challenges of a changing climate. Although the report focuses on Historic England itself, its conclusions will be of relevance throughout the heritage sector.
In summary, the report identifies twelve risks relating to heritage advice, five risks relating to organisational operations, and eight opportunities for furthering Historic England’s key function as champion of England’s heritage. To begin to address these risks, and make the most of these opportunities, the report identifies the following adaptive measures that Historic England should take over the next five years:
- maintain a ‘watching brief’ on current projections for the changing climate and their associated environmental impacts;ensure that its staff have the skills and equipment needed to adapt to the challenges of climate change;
- support measures that will enable the historic environment to be resilient to these changes. Maintenance has an important role to play in this;
- embed climate change adaptation and environmental risk management within the organisation’s projects and practices;
- promote the positive role the historic environment can play in informing responses to climate change and associated environmental risks;
- develop an approach for dealing with those consequences of change that are inevitable;
- support the English Heritage Trust in addressing the matter.
Climate change: risk or opportunity?
Climate change poses a risk to the historic environment in several ways. It will exacerbate or accelerate natural processes such as erosion and flooding; extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and drought, with their consequent impact on heritage sites, will increase in number; sea levels will rise; the distribution of flora and fauna, and of pests and diseases, will change.
The way in which people respond to a changing climate will also have an impact. Likely responses could include, for instance, adapting buildings to cope with increased intensity rainfall or increased flood risk, as well as overheating; and constructing defences against coastal erosion and flooding. There will also be impacts from changes in the way the land is used: farming areas that were previously unfarmed, expanding woodland, or constructing new water storage infrastructure. Some of the measures that will make heritage assets more resilient to these risks are very simple. For example, the impact of intense rain can be reduced if basic maintenance is carried out, keeping gutters and drains clear and building fabric in good order. In other instances these changes will result in the permanent loss of, or damage to, archaeological sites, historic structures and places.
But the situation also provides opportunities, enabling Historic England and the wider sector to promote the positive role that heritage can play in preparing for and adapting to the consequences of climate change.
One exciting opportunity is the potential for new discoveries. Drought can expose new cropmarks; coastal erosion reveal previously hidden archaeological sites; shifting marine sediments and currents can reveal shipwrecks and submerged landscapes. Flooding can even provide insights into ancient landscapes: for instance the 2014 flooding of the Somerset Levels revealed the kind of scene that might have been familiar in the time of King Alfred.
There are also opportunities for community engagement and broadening access to heritage. For example the historic environment can provide a focus for communities experiencing change. A recent review of heritage and flood defences in Worcestershire commissioned by Historic England revealed examples in which archaeological discoveries made during the creation of flood defences had generated real community interest. For instance at Kempsey the local community raised fund to erect a memorial to the medieval people whose burials were uncovered during flood defence works.
UNESECO and others have recognised that climate change may actually increase tourism in some areas of the UK, particularly with regard to outdoor attractions. The resulting likely increase in heritage-related tourism is an opportunity, but it also brings with it the challenge of managing the impact of increased footfall on the sites being visited.
There is also much that can be learnt from the past. For instance we are learning through the work of our Conservation Research Team that many traditional building materials can be more resilient to flood damage than modern replacements. Likewise, the recent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report recognises that traditionally-constructed buildings can be much more comfortable in extremely hot weather than their modern equivalents. We can also learn by studying how people adapted to change in the past, for example with regard to patterns of settlement and land use on floodplains, or the construction and use of buildings at risk from flooding. As our climate changes we can also learn from how people outside the UK traditionally adapted to the conditions that we might face. Such lessons can help improve the solutions we develop to current and future challenges.
Some heritage assets can themselves make contributions to adapting to climate change. Urban green spaces, for example, are often significant heritage assets, and make a considerable contribution to alleviating the ‘urban heat island’, in which urban areas are considerably warmer that their surroundings; if properly managed, such green spaces can also help improve air quality and reduce the risk of flooding from surface water. Likewise, well-maintained water meadows can help alleviate river-flow issues.
We can also help colleagues from other sectors. As people who study the past we are aware that the environment around us has always changed and people have always adapted to it. We can help to contextualise climate change by providing this long-term view.
Climate change, and society’s need to respond and adapt to it, is encouraging all organisations to think differently and seek novel solutions. There is a real opportunity for the heritage sector to play a positive role in communicating and adapting to these changes, often through collaboration in areas we might not traditionally view as our domain. The historic environment sector is used to taking the long view, and this relates not only to our understanding of the past but also to the way we seek to conserve historic sites into the future. We are thus perhaps unusually well-equipped to contribute to the process of planning for future changes.
Dr Hannah Fluck FSA is Head of Environmental Research in Historic England’s Strategic Research and Partnerships Team. She has an academic interest in Pleistocene archaeology and over a decade’s experience as a local government archaeologist in Hampshire and Oxfordshire. Hannah joined Historic England in 2015, and works on flooding, coastal change and ecosystem services; she is the author of Historic England’s report on climate change adaptation.
Archaeological discoveries resulting from environmental change, available at the Heritage Calling blog
Fluck, H 2016 Climate Change Adaptation Report. Swindon: Historic England Research Report Series 28/2016
Historic England and climate change web pages
Also of interest...
Historic England research into how climate change affects the historic environment.
How to inspect, conserve and repair historic buildings after flooding, as well as ways to prevent flood damage in the first place.
How to improve the energy efficiency of older buildings in ways that are sympathetic to their historic character.