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The Effect of Climate Change on Cultural and Historical Sites

In recent years, climate change has become a topic of more importance than ever before, as we are continuously confronted with new information about problems we will face in the future if we don’t act now. Predictions include that by the year 2100, global temperatures will be an average 4°C warmer, sea levels will be 0.7m higher, and there will be more extreme weather conditions. But, it is not just our future that is being affected, it is our past too. 

Historic sites preserved across the world are now at risk due to the climate crisis. Cultural and historical heritage sites can take many forms, from being a single building to an entire city. These sites are not merely a point of interest for tourists, but they are also key to historical research, which can bridge cultural understandings between the past, present, and future of humankind. If we lose these sites, we risk losing the knowledge, culture, history, and insight that they hold. What will the effect of climate change be on such sites, and more importantly, what work is being done to protect the past?

Climate change poses numerous threats to heritage sites, such as rising sea levels, which can lead to flooding, or a dry climate which may lead to sandstorms that can accelerate architectural decay and erosion. An example of such dangers is evident in Scotland. In a report carried out by Historic Environment Scotland, information was provided about the risks of climate change and what can be done to combat them. Using the case of Blackness Castle by the Firth of Forth, the report noted its exposure to many natural hazards; including coastal flooding and erosion, as rainfall increases by approximately 200mm annually. If emissions increase, winters at Blackness could be 10% wetter than normal by the 2050s, thus placing Blackness Castle at risk of decay.

Blackness Castle
Photo by thskyt from Flickr distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license

This is a worldwide phenomenon. Machu Picchu, an Inca estate in Peru, has dealt with both drought and heavy rains in recent years. In 2010, there were fatal floods, which not only damaged the infrastructure of the terrain, but killed five people.

Pedro Lastra
Pedro Lastra / Unsplash

Such changes to historical and cultural sites have numerous negative consequences. These places allow us to understand other cultures, to form links between the past and the present. On a practical level, they encourage tourism, which in turn boosts the economy. Stonehenge, for example, which may face damage due to more extreme weather conditions such as gales and storms, brings in about £112 million a year. Cultural and historical sites are there to be enjoyed as a point of human interest, which it makes it even more important to protect them.

Photo by Kris Schulze from Pexels

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. In the case of Blackness Castle, there have been interventions to protect it from harsh weather conditions, with the construction of a small wall to protect the site. Likewise, in Machu Picchu the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism have plans for some test projects to evaluate the level of risk posed by changing climate conditions, although, this is admittedly small-scale.

So, what is being done on a large scale? In 1972, the first key step to protect historic sites was taken at the World Heritage Convention, which obliged participating countries to protect sites identified as being valuable. In 2006, a report was formed on managing the effects of climate change on world heritage. Since then, there have been international efforts to protect sites in extreme danger. One such effort was the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s decision to raise the walls of the Sankoré mosque in Timbuktu to prevent it from being buried under the sand, and then remove the sand from the vicinity of the mosque to improve the drainage system.

Sankoré temple
Photo by upyernoz via Flickr distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license

Such efforts are undeniably important. But, as one can imagine, these methods can only go so far. As the effects of climate change worsen and weather conditions become more extreme, the damage to heritage will worsen, too. State leaders and policymakers have a duty to protect these sites, not only by building walls to protect them from the weather, but also by contributing to long-term sustainability efforts. This may include imposing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, cracking down on corporations flaunting climate-safe legislation, or preventing unsustainable project development, such as road building which can alter environmental structures. Whichever path to protection is chosen, one thing remains clear: there is key work to be done to protect our culture and history, or we risk losing it forever. 

Emma Gatrell

St Andrews '24

Hi, I'm Emma! I'm studying History at St Andrews. Things I love include good books, cats, and drinking lots of tea.
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