Orkney Hosts International Workshop on Climate Change Threat to World Heritage Sites

Skara Brae Neolithic Settlement, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Orkney College UHI are pleased to be hosting a major three day workshop this week where leading climate scientists and heritage professionals from across the globe are gathering to apply a new tool for measuring the climate change threat to World Heritage sites.

Claire Mullaney, Senior Communications Officer at Historic Environment Scotland continues….”Supported by Historic Environment Scotland (HES), in partnership with University of the Highlands and Islands, James Cook University (JCU, Australia), Orkney Islands Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the workshop in Stromness will pilot the new methodology which assesses the risks to all types of heritage sites impacted by climate change, known as the Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CVI).

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney will be the first cultural World Heritage site to undergo CVI assessment, following an initial trial of the tool over 8000 miles away at Shark Bay in Western Australia – a natural site which encompasses 2.2 million hectares of diverse landscapes, animals and plant life.

As part of the CVI workshop, delegates will visit the historic sites that comprise the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site, including Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. Several delegates will also speak at a public event at Orkney College UHI in Kirkwall on the evening of Thursday 25 April, which will offer the local community an opportunity to find out more about the project and the challenges of managing the World Heritage site in changing climate.

Following the workshop, a report will be produced and then presented during the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee which takes place in Baku, Azerbaijan this July, highlighting the results from Orkney and recommending that the CVI be adopted as a world standard for measuring the climate change risk to World Heritage sites.”

Ewan Hyslop, Head of Technical Research and Science at HES, said: “Climate change poses a number of very real threats to heritage sites, not only here in Scotland but throughout the world, and we’re very pleased to have been asked by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Climate Change and Heritage Working Group to pilot the CVI assessment tool in Orkney.

Skara Brae, Orkney, showing proximity of the eroding coastline to the site

“At HES, we’ve already undertaken significant work to research the climate change risk our historic sites face, as outlined in our Climate Change Risk Assessment report which was published last year. This workshop offers an important opportunity to further enhance our knowledge and pool expertise by working collaboratively with our local, national and international partners to face this shared challenge, and take a positive step forward to help protect World Heritage sites across the globe.”

Dr Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer in Physics at JCU and one of the lead developers of the CVI assessment tool, said: “Climate change has been identified as the fastest growing threat to World Heritage properties, many of which are already being impacted. The purpose of this workshop is to assess the climate vulnerability of the Orkney World Heritage site, using a tool custom designed for application to all types of World Heritage properties – cultural and natural, marine and terrestrial.”

Adam Markham, Deputy Director for Climate and Energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a member of the ICOMOS working group, said “UCS has been at the forefront of identifying the growing threat to World Heritage sites from climate impacts including from sea level rise, extreme weather events, coastal erosion and worsening storm surge.

“From the Statue of Liberty in New York, to Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, iconic heritage sites the world-over are at risk”, said Markham. “We’re excited to be working with HES and the other partners to pioneer the development of this urgently needed rapid assessment tool to help prioritise and plan climate resilience actions at internationally important sites.”

Skaill Bay – the location of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement

“Our research shows that Orkney’s world class heritage is suffering greatly from the impacts of climate change,” says Professor Jane Downes, who leads the University of the Highlands and Islands Institute of Archaeology. “We welcome this work as a vital part of setting Orkney’s heritage in today’s global context, while planning for the long term.”

Find out more about how climate change affects the historic environment and what HES is doing to help limit the impact on our website.

About Historic Environment Scotland

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is the lead public body charged with caring for, protecting and promoting the historic environment. HES is also the lead on delivering Scotland’s first strategy for the historic environment, Our Place in Time.

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Thanks to Claire Mullaney, Senior Communications Officer for the above article. Contact: 0131 668 8588

Coastal Erosion in Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

ahu naunauCoastal erosion, as a result of rising sea levels and the increased frequency of storms, is destroying archaeological sites across the globe.

In this article, researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Bournemouth University examine the impacts of coastal erosion in Easter Island.

The ahu (platforms), with their moai (statues) are the iconic monuments of Rapa Nui. Hundreds of these complex ceremonial monuments encircle the island, the majority of them being located immediately on the coast. Therefore these monuments are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion, and many are collapsing into the sea (Photograph 1).

Picture One

The ahu comprise, on the landward sides, ramps which often have burial cists built into them. Surmounting the ahu are the moai, and fragments of moai were also incorporated within the ahu make-up as the structures were rebuilt over time. Further burials are often to be found at the edge of the ramps. Levelled areas – plazas – have situated upon them a variety of structures relating to ceremonies associated with the ahu such as dance platforms and boat houses.

The seaward side of the ahu, and therefore most eroded by wave action, were built as vertical walls created from basalt facing slabs. Damage to one of these walls can be seen in Photographs 2 and 3.

Picture Two

Picture Three

Situated typically behind the wall and therefore closest to the sea are crematoria, often stone built platforms where deposits of cremated bone can be exposed, and cremation burials either deposited within cists or as surface spreads.

Cremation was, unusually for Polynesia, the dominant burial rite during the image ahu-building era and afford an opportunity to learn much about the beliefs of the society as well as being a rich source of data about the population more generally. Cremated bone also could provide important information for chronology, but very little has been used for dating and none in recent times.

Canoe ramps were situated to the side of and extending beyond the ahu into the sea. Erosion of a canoe ramp can be seen in Photograph 4.

Picture Four

In a paper entitled ‘Coastal climate change impacts for Easter Island in 2100’ (L. Quilliam, R. Cox, P. Campbell and M. Wright, Rapa Nui Journal Vo.28 (1) (May 2014), coastal inundation was identified as one of the two main climate change impacts to the island  (the other being water supply). Stakeholders on the island felt that risk of tsunami was an even greater threat than coastal inundation. Ovahe beach is identified in the study as being at ‘serious risk of permanent inundation’ (ibid, 65); Photograph 5 shows waves breaking against an important crematorium platform.

Picture Five

In 1960 the reconstructed ahu Tongariki was destroyed by a tsunami originating from an earthquake off the coast of Chile, and the ahu was again reconstructed in the 1990’s (Photograph 6).

Picture SixThis site, along with Hanga Roa, Tahai and ‘Anakena are identified by the Quilliam et al study as being at highest risk of coastal inundation, with ‘wave runup forces’ having the ‘potential to damage the seaward ahu wall’ and therefore undermine the structure upon which the moai stand (Quilliam et al 2014, 63). These sites of reconstructed ahu with moai standing upon them are really central to the tourism industry and therefore to the economic basis of Rapa Nui.

As our illustrations show, there is ongoing wave damage to many other of the ahu, with a consequent loss of data relating to aspects of the ahu as a whole, and to the above-mentioned aspects that have been little researched. Cliff instability, which climate change has an unquantifiable potential to exacerbate as sea level rises may cause waves with greater energy and increase the rate of undercutting of the cliffs (Quilliam et al 2014, 65), threatens the famous bird man rock art at ‘Orongo, where parts of the sea cliff have already collapsed. Our aerial photograph taken at Poike shows that cliff instability also threatens the ahu (Photograph 7).

Picture Seven

Wind erosion is also a factor; while at ‘Anakena onshore winds transport large quantities of sand onshore (Photograph 8), at the coast on Poike the devastation caused by wind erosion can be seen in Photograph 9. At Poike archaeological deposits have been almost wholly removed and the unique black basalt and white ahu stands proud of the ground surface.

Picture Eight

Picture NineIt is clear that climate change is having an adverse and worsening impact on sites situated on the coast. This damage will destroy parts of the archaeological resource including deposits that are particularly under-researched, but moreover could have a significant negative impact on the tourism economy of Rapa Nui.

The research was featured in a New York Times feature and an interview with Professor Jane Downes on CBC Radio is available as a podcast.


Text by Professor Jane Downes (University of the Highlands and Islands) and Professor Kate Welham (Bournemouth University), photographs by Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam).

Research visits to Rapa Nui undertaken as part of the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC)–funded ‘Rapa Nui – Landscapes of Construction’ project have afforded the opportunity to generate these observations.

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.”