What it means for the historic environment

What it means for the historic environment

Many historic buildings, sites and landscapes have already experienced and survived significant climatic changes in the past and may demonstrate considerable resilience in the face of future climate change. However, many more historic assets are potentially at risk from the direct impacts of future climate change. Without action to adapt to a changing climate and limit further changes it is likely that these will be irreparably damaged and the cultural, social and economic benefits they provide will also be lost. Equally, the significance and integrity of important historic assets can be threatened by poorly designed adaptation and mitigation responses. The non-renewable character of historic features and the potential for their damage and loss should, therefore, always be taken into account when adaptation and mitigation responses are being planned and executed.

Some implications of the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on historic assets are considered further below. Detailed English Heritage guidance is also available on a number of these topics.
(see Further information).

Direct impacts

Direct impacts of climate change on the historic environment may include:

  • rising sea levels and a possible increase in storminess that endangers historic landscapes, structures, buildings and archaeology in the coastal zone
  • Increased extremes of wetting and drying, that heighten the risk of ground subsidence and accelerated decay of stonework and thus poses a threat to many historic buildings 
  • More frequent intense rainfall, that causes increased erosion of archaeological sites and damaging flooding in historic settlements, the latter making historic buildings difficult to insure 
  • Changes in hydrology that put  buried archaeological remains, including well-preserved wetland archaeology, at risk 
  • Changes in vegetation patterns that threaten the visibility and integrity of archaeological remains and historic landscapes 
  • A warming climate that makes some historically authentic tree plantings difficult to conserve 
  • Changes in the distribution of pests that threatens the integrity of historic buildings, collections and designed landscapes 
  • Possible increases in the frequency or geographical range of extreme weather that could pose an increased risk of damage to some historic landscapes and buildings

Flooding in Tewksbury

Impacts from adaptive responses 

Some adaptive responses to climate change may themselves have an impact on the historic environment, for example:

  • ‘Hard’ coastal defence is seen as untenable on much of the undeveloped coast and has led to a new  emphasis on selective managed realignment and ‘soft’ defences (such as salt marsh), posing a possible risk to archaeology, buildings and landscapes
  • New flood defences, particularly in historic towns, can cause major archaeological damage along historic waterfronts and may impair the character of historic quaysides and waterside buildings and gardens
  • The design integrity of some historic buildings and landscapes could be damaged by the need to provide new and more effective rainwater disposal or storage systems or flood protection features
  • Alteration of agricultural and forestry practices, resulting from changes in crop, stock or species viability, could pose a risk to buried archaeological sites, traditional farm buildings and historic landscapes


The impact of policies to mitigate future climate change 

Developments designed to generate renewable energy – like any other infrastructure developments – can have a wide variety of impacts, both positive and negative, that vary from the insignificant to the unacceptable. The benefits delivered by these new technologies can also vary considerably, particularly when considered on a whole-life basis. It is always important, therefore, to evaluate these benefits and impacts on a case-by-case basis. Among typical issues to be considered will include:

  • The construction of new renewable energy infrastructure, including hydro-electric and tidal plants and onshore and offshore wind farms, may have direct impacts on archaeological remains
  • Wind farms need to be carefully sited to avoid compromising significant landscapes, or the visual setting of important sites or buildings where the integrity of that setting is an important part of their significance 
  • The introduction of new biomass crops may pose a risk to buried archaeology through deeper disturbance and lowered water tables, or it may radically change the appearance of historically significant landscapes. The impact of other initiatives, such as the re-use of existing coppiced woodland, may be entirely positive 
  • Some types of micro-generation equipment, such as mini wind turbines, or micro combined heat and power plants, are unlikely to present problems if sensitively located on historic buildings; others may be more visually intrusive and difficult to accommodate. Consideration should be given to minimising physical impacts on the historic fabric of buildings and ensuring reversibility wherever practicable 
  • Poorly designed or inappropriate energy-saving measures could seriously detract from the historic character and fabric of buildings and landscapes, whereas well designed measures can make considerable savings with little or no damage. Proposals to replace historic buildings with new stock that is ostensibly more energy-efficient could result in serious losses of historic character and diversity.


Climate change and the historic environment

Climate change and the Historic Environment

In 2002 English Heritage commissioned the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London to assess the potential impact of climate change on the historic environment. The report includes the views of agencies and organisations on the key challenges facing historic buildings, archaeology, and gardens and landscapes, and looks at the ways North-West and South-East England might be effected  by the changes in climate projected by UKCIP.

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If you tell us where you live in England and when your house was constructed we can provide more specific information about the potential effects of climate change on your home. We can also provide you with more detailed information on how to save energy to reduce carbon emissions.


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