University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeologists Lead in International Climate Change Action

Erosion at Skara Brae

The Climate Risk Assessment for Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Property Report, was published this week and launched at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting held on Tuesday 2 July 2019 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The report was co-authored by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Director Professor Jane Downes and Orkney Islands Council Regional Archaeologist and UHI researcher Julie Gibson.

The Climate Vulnerability Index assessment report was produced following a workshop, co-hosted by UHI Archaeology Institute, in Orkney earlier this year to trial the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) framework, which assesses the threat that climate change poses to all types of heritage sites. Supported by University of the Highlands and Islands in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland (HES), James Cook University (JCU, Australia), Orkney Islands Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and ICOMOS Climate Change and Heritage Working Group, the workshop brought together leading international heritage professionals and climate scientists and islanders whose lives and businesses are bound up with the World Heritage site.

Skara Brae, Orkney. Photo: Adam Lee

The CVI approach examined both the vulnerability of the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Orkney World Heritage site – the basis for its selection as a World Heritage site – as well as community vulnerability, which explored the economic, social and cultural importance of the site for the local community and the potential impact of any loss, as well as its resilience to climate change risks.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney was the first cultural World Heritage site to undergo CVI assessment, following an initial trial of the tool at Shark Bay in Western Australia. The report recommends wider application of the CVI methodology, both in Scotland and internationally, highlighting its significant potential to enhance understanding and support adaptation to address climate change challenges at World Heritage sites worldwide.

Professor Jane Downes commented that, “We are pleased that the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has been involved with the international team in this crucial work to develop a method of assessing damage to economically vital world heritage sites. This report highlights the very real threats to heritage that climate change brings”

Julie Gibson said “The report starkly highlights the severe threats of a changing climate to Orkney’s World Heritage Site – through sea level rise, changes in storm intensity and frequency, and increased rainfall.  The workshop method provides a means of understanding how different communities in the world will relate to the impacts of climate change on their heritage. Hopefully for Orkney, our potential to adapt will be fulfilled”

Ewan Hyslop, Head of Technical Research and Science at HES, said: “It was a great honour for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site to be chosen to pilot the CVI methodology, and we’re pleased to now bring those findings to the international stage during the World Heritage Committee meeting. While the findings of the report reiterate the severity of climate change risk to the World Heritage site in Orkney, there are also positives to take away in terms of the resilience of the site and the wider community to manage the impacts of climate change in the future.”

Adam Markham, Deputy Director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS and a co-developer of the CVI said: “Climate change is the fastest growing threat to World Heritage sites. Sites worldwide are being damaged and degraded by melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons, yet there is no standardized way to assess vulnerability. The CVI is being developed to fill that gap, so that experts and site managers can use local knowledge and the best available science to determine the risk level, and then take the appropriate action to protect them.”