Orkney experience contributes to African climate-change project

The Sukur Cultural Landscape in Nigeria is one of two African World Heritage sites involved in the CVI-Africa project. The hilltop settlement, which dates back to the sixteenth century, will be the focus of Professor Jane Downes, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is part of a new project focusing on the impact of climate change on African heritage sites.

Worldwide, climate change is threatening people, communities and their heritage. Africa is projected to warm more rapidly than most other regions on the planet, meaning this already vulnerable continent will be hard-hit by the impact of climate change.

The CVI-Africa project, led by institutions in Africa and the United Kingdom, will pilot the application of the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) to African World Heritage properties.

The CVI assessment tool assesses the risk to heritage by climate change and the vulnerability of associated communities based on their economic, social and cultural relationships to those values and their capacity to adapt.

It was first applied to a cultural World Heritage Site in 2019, when its focus was the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.  There, the site was found to be at risk of being destroyed within 50 years due to rising sea levels, increased storminess and rainfall but that the richness of the rest of the research meant there were options for economic and cultural sustainability.

Dr Albino Jopela of the African World Heritage Fund, a co-investigator on the project, said: “Despite the intensifying threat, there remains a lack of attention to the cultural dimensions of climate change and this is especially true here in Africa. The CVI-Africa project will help fill this gap.”

Professor Jane Downes is the director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and an expert on climate change and heritage.

She explained: “Cultural heritage in Africa is being destroyed by a number of climate change impacts. There is an urgent need to respond to this and the CVI-Africa project will work closely with heritage professionals and researchers from across the continent to better understand this ongoing challenge.

“The project has great potential to effect action on climate change through detailing the impacts of climate change on these internationally important sites.”

The project will provide training in the CVI method to six African heritage professionals and culminate in workshops at two World Heritage Sites affected by climate change.

Professor Downes will be focusing on the Sukur Cultural Landscape in the Mandara Mountains along the Cameroon-Nigeria border.

According to ICOMOS Nigeria’s Dr Ishanlosen: “Sukur reflects the complexity of assessing vulnerability. Located in the Mandara Mountains along the Cameroon-Nigeria border, the impact of climate change has induced shifts in the political and local economies, with attendant risks to cultural heritage. Supporting local communities and national authorities to develop tools that build on local experience and realities, can help them manage these risks and plan for the future. We hope that the CVI can contribute to fulfilling that need.”

The second site is the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara, in Tanzania, where climate change is already affecting the coastal monuments.

Site manager Mercy Mbogelah explained: “Although we took some adaptation measures to stop the speed of wave actions going direct to the monuments, more action and learning experiences from others is needed. For this matter the CVI-Africa project will bring us together to find more actions to reduce or stop these challenges.”

The project has been funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund scheme with support from the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The workshops will include the six heritage professionals, local and national experts and stakeholders and international partners.

For more details, see http://cvi-africa.org.

Online seminar: Learning from Northern people

Professor Leslie King

What the people of the Arctic can teach us to help respond to climate change is the subject of a University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research seminar on November 27.

Arctic explorers owed their survival to the knowledge gained from Inuit during their expeditions in harsh but fragile environments. We are now experiencing another period of climate and rapid environmental and social change.

Part our survival and future depends on lessons learnt from people on the front lines of climate change and biodiversity loss about how to adapt and thrive in conditions of uncertainty and change. Climate researchers are modern explorers attempting to learn from the knowledge – ancient and contemporary – held by Northern people.

Led by Professor Leslie King of the Canadian Centre for Environmental Education and Visiting Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the talk will introduce some of the research results that may help us in lower latitudes prepare for, respond to, and survive dramatic changes in the social-ecological systems upon which we depend.

The free online seminar is at 4pm on Friday, November 27. For details on how to view, click here.

Online seminar: The lost township of Broo – climate change or human agency in a coastal sand disaster?

Excavations of 17th century buildings at Broo Site II, Dunrossness, Shetland. (Picture: Gerry Bigelow)

Today, the latest University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Research seminar considers geocatastrophe, using a lost Shetland township as an example.

About three hundred years ago, Broo was overwhelmed by windblown sand. The environmental catastrophe was probably not the first time that sand from the nearby Quendale Beach had caused problems, but this time the sand blew far inland and the community did not recover.

Through the history of Broo, the online seminar looks as the causes, processes and consequences of geocatastrophe.

The Shetland Islands Climate and Settlement Project (SICSP) has been investigating the causes, processes and consequences of the Broo geocatastrophe for over a decade. The coasts of Scotland and other parts of Europe offer many examples of archaeological sites and later monuments that have experienced comparable episodes of sand movements. Climate change has been proposed as a cause of these, sometimes catastrophic events, but other factors may also have played key roles.

The seminar, at 4pm on Friday, October 30, will be led by Dr Gerry Bigelow, emeritus associate professor of history, Bates College, Maine, and Visiting Reader with the UHI Archaeology Institute.

Dr Bigelow will discuss findings from the Broo research that contribute to understanding this environmental and historical phenomenon. In addition, the presentation will outline some of the challenges and opportunities that are involved in archaeologies of extreme events and buried landscapes.

For details on how to view the free online seminar, click here.

Climate change and heritage – online talk by Archaeology Institute director

The moai statues of Easter Island. Under threat from climate change. (Picture: Jane Downes)

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Professor Jane Downes will present her research on climate change and heritage to an international audience next week.

Professor Jane Downes.

In an online talk on Tuesday, October 6, Professor Downes will, together with Dr Will Megarry of Queens University Belfast, detail the research behind the Google Arts and Culture Heritage on the Edge resource, which highlights dramatically the impacts of climate change on the statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The free ICOMOS-UK talk, available via the Zoom app or a web browser, begins at 7pm. To register, click here.

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.”