Sunday, May 21, 2006

s it possible to maintain sustainability of our heritage in the face of climate change?

The effects of a changing climate can already be seen. Temperatures and sea levels are rising, ice and snow cover are declining. The consequences could be catastrophic for the natural world and society. The scientific consensus is that most of the warming observed over that last 50 years is attributable to human activity, through emissions of greenhouse gases-such as carbon dioxide and methane-into the atmosphere. We need to make a profound change in our use of energy and other activities that release these gases. And we need to prepare for the changes in climate that are now already unavoidable. (Securing the Future-delivering UK sustainable development strategy, HM Government, TSO 2005)

Its getting difficult to determine what is fact and which is fiction, deciding if its freak weather or becoming our normal weather pattern. As we descend into the grip of climate change, what effects will this have on our built and natural historical environment.

We must also consider what changes we must take as individuals, groups, businesses and nations, we need to make changes to maintain a level of sustainability for our future generations. We are already seeing effects of damage to our natural environment in the UK, the Somerset levels are rapidly disappearing, which will have a great impact on the Wetland archaeology of the levels.

Global warming or climate change was first predicted in the nineteenthCentury, and in 1896 a Swedish scientist Svante Artenius satated, “that the use of fossil fuels could double the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and could cause a rise in the average global temperature of about 5 degrees C (Green Architecture, 1991).” It has now been predicted that the average temperature will rise between 1.4C and 5.8C between 1990 and 2100.These types of effects will have a dramatic impact on our heritage; it will not only have an impact on the tourists and the environment, but also on the structures themselves. These new developments in climate will have a devastating effect on the actual integrity of the buildings. We will see more damage occurring because of these changes.

Climate change has been much debate issue for some years, but it is now widely accepted that well established climate patterns are indeed changing, it is becoming a matter of urgency not only to mitigate the level of future change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also to develop plans to adapt our societies and economies to cope with the climate changes that will occur. (Climate Change and the Historic Environment, English Heritage, 2005)

What the heritage sector will need to do is to adapt to these growing problems if it is to maintain a level of sustainability. We need to consider what we mean by sustainability;

Sustainable development aims to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without without compromising the quality of life for future generations. (Securing the Future-delivering UK sustainable development strategy, HM Government, TSO 2005)

What we mean with regards to sustainability is that we manage our resources better. The resources we use are managed so that future generations will also have access to those same resources. If we take wood for example, for every tree felled, we need to re-plant a new one. It may be that we as a society return to the old practices of coppicing and pollarding of our trees. To make sure our industries and particular heritage is sustainable for future generations, then we need to implement management strategies that pay particular attention to sustainable development of our resources and products.

During the last century we used our energy resources without any consideration for our future sustainability. It is only now with the impact of climate change that developments and research are being put into action concerning this issue. If the heritage industry is to become sustainable, then what actions should it take as an industry?

Currently within the heritage sector there is a save all approach with regards to preservation, this may not be possible in the light of climate change. The save all approach to the historic environment needs to be re-evaluated. It is not realistic to conserve anything forever or everything for any time at all. (Climate Change and the Historic Environment, English Heritage, 2005).

Already there are significant issues being raised with the preservation of our coastal heritage in the face of rising sea levels. After adjusting for national land movements, the average sea level around the UK is now 10cm higher than it was in 1900. (

We have to face the reality that we will lose a large proportion of our coastal heritage to the rising sea levels. Many sites will be endangered by sea level rise and storm surge: 600 to 1800 sites are vulnerable to coastal erosion (English Heritage 2005). Therefore it may be wise to consider stopping any funding towards the protection of these sites and simply survey and record them for the future. If they are to be swallowed by the sea, then it will be impossible to sustain them for future generations. Inevitable loss will probably require approaches to rapid investigation and recording (English Heritage 2005)

There will be no new preservation problems, what climate change will do is highlight those that already exist. These problems will become a more frequent and will need regular maintenance, in order to accommodate a more frequent maintenance plan, and then organisations may need to develop staff training requirements. Local site maintenance may require training in basic preservation techniques so that there is a constant level of preservation work being carried out at a local level. Organisations may not have the luxury of leaving sites until there is a substantial amount of building work to be carried out by contractors. Extreme weather may bring extreme cases of damage that will require immediate attention which may only be possible by local staff.

We can’t know precisely how far the sea levels will rise over the following decades, but we do have possible scenarios, based on existing available data. Therefore we should plan based around that data. We have to assume we will loose a substantial amount of our coastal heritage. So a system of precise survey and recording of our heritage along the coast will need to be done immediately.

Important decisions will need to be made with regards to any archaeological sites. Do we record and leave in situ? Or do we excavate and preserve, in the same way we have done in the past, as was done with the discovery of the site Seahenge and the Ferriby boats. Archaeology presently preserved close to ground surface is likely to be destroyed before it can be excavated and recorded. (English Heritage 2005) If this is the case then we are likely to lose a lot of the buried archaeology on a lot of sites around the country.

Flood plans will need to put in place and it may become a factor that some museum and buildings, which find they are in a flood risk area, who house valuable collections may have to relocate those collections to a more suitable location. For instance The Derby Industrial Museum, Silk Mill is located alongside the River Derwent and is in a flood risk area. In the future that risk may become too great and the museum may have to relocate a substantial amount of its collection.

With forecasters predicting that this coming winter could see temperatures dropping below freezing, the heritage sector could face the possibility of a range of problems caused by severe cold weather. We are likely to see an increase of weather extremes in the future, everything from freak whirlwinds, similar to those experienced in Birmingham this year, heavy rain falls, localised flooding and storm surges, as witnessed in Boscastle in 2004.Yet with climate change there can be benefits that come with a warmer climate such an increase of visitors to sites around the country but an increase may also be destructive to sites such as Hadrian’s Wall. Currently Hadrian’s Wall faces problems from visitors walking along wall, this impact’s on soil erosion and the delicate archaeology under foot. To combat this problem Hadrian’s Wall has built a path, which will protect the archaeology.

Physical access to the WHS is important as the means whereby visitors can enjoy fully first-hand experience of the Site without compromising its fabric, character or setting. The Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail is due to become available for public use in 2003 and will provide an enormous opportunity for walkers to enjoy and learn about the WHS by opening up sections not previously accessible to the public, and by linking together existing rights of way. (Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site Management Plan 2002-2007).

This has been achieved by building a grass sward path, though in areas this was not possible on wet and sloping ground. This path will still need constant management, to maintain this feature; this is an example of good practice in maintaining sustainability. Any solution to a constant problem requires regular maintenance.


Climate change is an acknowledge threat to both the natural and historic environment. For example, changes in the intensity and frequency of storm events will pose a challenge to a wide spectrum of the historic environment from coastal sites to veteran trees. Can we measure the likely impact and the cost necessary mitigation? (State of the Historic Environment Report, English Heritage, 2002)It is possible to maintain sustainability of out heritage in the face of climate change, but it will require new management plans, compromises, change and new ways of thinking. The heritage industry just like other industries will have to adapt to a range of new ideas and procedures. Our buildings will have to become more self sufficient and greener in the use of energy and other natural resources.

They may have to implement changes that may compromise the historic integrity of the trust, group or individual, who manages the building/site. We can no longer be complacent about the energy we use, the materials used in construction/repair, as well as issues of how the heritage sector will be funded.

With rising oil prices, cheap modes of transport, especially from abroad, may have an impact of the amount of tourists who visits sites, especially those from abroad. The current boom in air travel may become a thing of the past reducing the overall number of potential visitors. Heritage sites may have to consider the possibility that their visitor numbers may drop drastically in the future, that they are no longer able to attract people to their site globally. This may mean that sites may have become more locally entrenched economically, by becoming more involved with the local community and attract a more consistent locally based visitor.

We assume that our electricity will there at a flick of a switch. Most of our nuclear power stations, which provide approximately a third of our electrical energy, will be shut down over the next twenty years. Currently there are no definite plans to replace these power stations, therefore we have to assume that within twenty years we will have lost nearly a third of our capacity to generate electricity. Which will have an impact on our businesses and homes, we can import more gas and oil to make up this short fall, but this means that costs will be incurred by the customer. Which long term will make have an impact on the visitor, if the cost of heating and lighting a building increase then that cost will have top be made up at the entrance fee. To avoid this heritage building will have to produce their own energy, using one of the alternative methods, such as solar, wind or wood.

We will need management plans that will allow us to protect, develop and be in a position to pass our heritage assets on to the next generation. We as the public need to understand that our heritage is important to our society as a whole and that it has great potential value for future generations.

Yet in the end, sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which exploitation of resources, the direction of the investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as present needs. (WCED 1987, Our Common Future-Oxford University Press).

Vale, B & Vale, R (1991) – Green Architecture: design for a sustainable future, Thames & Hudson.Seymour, J (1982) -The Lore of the Land, Whittet books.
Quiney, A. (1990) - The Traditional Buildings of England, Thames & Hudson.
Horster, V (2003) – Living the Past, English Heritage.
Graedel, T & Crutzen, P (1995) – Atmosphere, Climate & Change, SAL.Galloway, T (2004) – Solar House, Elesvier.
Guldemberg, J (1996) – Energy, Environment & Development, Earthscan.
Holden, A (2000) – Environment & Tourism, Routledge.
Mowforth, M & Hunt I (1998) – Tourism & Sustainability, Routledge.
Shackley, M (ed) (1998) – Visitor Management: Case Studies from World Heritage Site, Butterworth Heinemann.

English Heritage (2005) - Making the Past part of our Future, English Heritage Publications
UK Climate Impacts Programme (2005) - Beating the Heat: keeping UK buildings cool in a warm climate, UKCIP Publications.
English Heritage (2004) – Building Regulations & Historic Buildings, English Heritage Publications
UK Climate Impacts Programme (2003) – Building Knowledge for a changing climate: impacts of climate change on the built environment, UKCIP Publications.
UCL (centre for sustainable heritage), (2005) – Climate change & the Historic Environment, UCL Publications.
HM Government (2005) – Securing the future: delivering UK sustainable development strategy, TSO.
English Heritage (2002) - State of the Historic Environment Report, English Heritage Publications.
Hadrian’s Wall (2002) - Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site Management Plan 2002-2007,


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