Climate Change and Heritage in the UK – an Evolving Approach

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Climate change and its impact on heritage has been a serious subject for research in the UK since the mid-2000s. Early on a number of broad studies were undertaken, including an assessment of the risks of climate change to the built environment in England and the impact of coastal erosion in England and Wales. An over view report, Assessment of Heritage at Risk from Environment Threat by English Heritage published in 2013, identified the following key themes relating to the impact, rather than the process, of climate change in the UK:

  • Coastal Processes
  • Inland Water Inundation
  • Extremes of Wetting and Drying
  • Fire
  • Pests and Diseases
  • Urban Heat Islands

Many site-specific studies across Britain have looked at the retrofitting of existing historic structures, usually buildings, in response to climate change or the threat of climate change. For instance, English Heritage has funded a study of the potential impact of water management legislation on river and canal‐side heritage and the impact of erosion on upland mining areas where metal pollution from mining and quarrying is stored in the soils.

Most recently Heritage England has funded research in 2014 and 2015 on disaster planning for heritage sites with a focus on flooding. Undertaken by the Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service this involved training local communities and emergency services. It focussed on developing emergency plans, contingency plans and business continuity plans. These were designed to help reduce, control or ease the effects of a climate-related emergency on heritage sites. Historic England have also issued, for the first time in the UK, a guidance document on the impact of flooding on historic buildings. Not only does this document identify the potential sources of flooding (river, coastal, surface, ground and sewer water) it also gives advice on dealing with the effects of flooding during and after the event.

In parallel to these studies have been research on the impact of climate change on the UK’s World Heritage Sites, particularly in England and Scotland. A report published in 2015 looked at the impact of climate change on the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. It used GIS modelling of the landscape to suggest areas most at risk from flooding and landslip. Case student then modelled several scenarios including the impact of removing weirs on erosion, deposition and chemical contamination. Though the study relies on landscape modelling combined with data from past events, it is a first step towards achieving the real-time monitoring and prediction of major climate events on the historic environment.

What should be clear from this brief review of research into climate change and heritage impact in the UK is that predictive studies and real-timing monitoring of climate problems are rare in Britain. This is, of course, where the STORM project comes in and is one of the reasons that the UK partners are working with Historic England.

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