Climate Change and the Historic Environment

The Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London (UCL) was commissioned by English Heritage in 2002 to carry out a scoping study on the impact of climate change on the historic environment.

The research method consisted of a critical bibliography, a questionnaire disseminated to heritage site managers, site visits and 2 regional workshops in the 2 selected study areas in England; the North West and East, chosen for their contrasting climates and impacts. 

The outputs consisted of demonstration maps of climate change vulnerability, and a policy makers’ workshop which highlighted the implications for policy including the need to raise public awareness, professional preparedness and sector leadership.  Investment in repair and maintenance and the impact of conflicting societal values, changes in society and demographics and in people’s behaviour were also identified as key concerns.  Gaps in information and research were highlighted.  The final report was published in 2005 and concluded with recommendations for short and medium term actions. 

Societal challenges  

The study addressed two of the five societal challenges identified by the NHSF research working group. It contributed in a minor way to tackling Sustainable Development by focussing on developing a holistic understanding of the impact of climate change and on the long-term management of heritage as a global resource for the benefit of societies around the world.  

This study contributed in a major way for the first time to tackling the Climate Emergency by extending our understanding of the impact of a changing climate on heritage by using knowledge and observation derived from the study of heritage assets to address the climate emergency.  

Impact of initiative  

The study’s report to English Heritage highlighted the risks that climate change poses to archaeological sites, historic buildings and contents and demonstrated the threats from a range of climate change parameters.  It identified knowledge gaps which began to be addressed in an EPSRC-funded research project in which researchers from HEIs, IROs and industry collaborated.  It led to the EU funded research project, Noah’s Ark, which published European risk maps and a vulnerability atlas and was awarded the Europa Nostra Grand Prix for Research (2009).  It was influential in raising awareness within the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of the risks to world heritage sites from climate change. 

The main beneficiary of the study were heritage site managers whose observations of the accelerating damage caused by climate change were systematically recorded for the first time and reported to English Heritage.  Also benefiting were policy makers who were presented the results of the study and who had the opportunity to debate the findings at a policy makers’ workshop towards the end of the study. 

Further information  

You can read the study’s full report here.

Image credit: Robyn Pender