The impact of climate change on archaeological heritage

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Researchers Contribute to UNESCO Report.

Research, undertaken by academics at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, details the impact of climate change on archaeological heritage on different sides of the world.

Contributing to the ‘UNESCO World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate’ report, Professor Jane Downes and Julie Gibson, of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, highlight the dangers of climate change to important archaeological sites in Orkney and Easter Island.

It is well known that climate change will have a dramatic impact on the economy across the planet and that island communities are particularly at risk. It is perhaps less well known that tourism is the largest industry in the world and that archaeological sites have a large part to play in attracting tourists and contributing to the overall economy of many areas. This report, published by The Union of Concerned Scientists for UNESCO, highlights these concerns and how climate change impacts upon specific World Heritage sites.

Professor Jane Downes’ research on Rapa Nui highlights the increasing damage to archaeological monuments due to sea level rise and coastal erosion.

In the new UNESCO report, Professor Downes points out that on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, the iconic carved moai statues and ceremonial ahu platforms are particularly at risk of coastal inundation and erosion as they are located directly on the coast, where “significant coastal erosion impacts are already being recorded at several of these important sites”. Four of the sites most important for tourism have recently been identified as among the most seriously threatened by wave damage.

Julie Gibson, County Archaeologist for Orkney and Lecturer in Archaeology, underlines the fact that at least half of all archaeological sites in Orkney are under threat from coastal erosion. A situation that will only become worse as sea levels rise and dramatic weather events increase in frequency.

Julie adds, “Skara Brae is the highest profile site at risk of eventual loss from coastal erosion…A sea wall was first constructed to protect Skara Brae from erosion in 1925 and periodic improvements have been made ever since, but the coast is eroding at either end of the wall.”