The Heart of Neolithic Orkney WHS
March 23, 2022
‘Skara Brae was revealed by great storm in 1850, and had been protected by a sea wall since the early 20th century; this sea wall was later extended and needs regular repair. It is now clear that climate change has the potential to severely impact both the monuments that make up the World Heritage Site and the natural and historic landscapes around them.’ Alice Lyall, HES
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, dating from c. 5000 years ago, is located in the West Mainland of the Orkney archipelago, which lies in an exposed position off the north coast of Scotland between the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. The vulnerability of parts of the World Heritage Site to extreme weather events and future sea-level rise was already a major concern. Skara Brae was revealed by great storm in 1850, and had been protected by a sea wall since the early 20th century; this sea wall was later extended and needs regular repair.
It is now clear that climate change has the potential to severely impact both the monuments that make up the World Heritage Site and the natural and historic landscapes around them. In 2019 a Climate Risk Assessment for the property was carried out, applying the Climate Vulnerability Index (a systematic tool to rapidly assess climate change risk to World Heritage). This found that the site was extremely vulnerable to the effects of sea level change, changes in precipitation (both the volume of precipitation, and also to changing patterns), and to possible increases in storm intensity and frequency. More than this, the potential for compounding factors to worsen the impacts were also a concern. For example, increased visitor footfall at the Ring of Brodgar combined with climate-change linked shifts in rainfall patterns contributes to serious erosion of path surfaces in an around the Ring, which risks both the integrity of the monument, potentially impacts unexcavated archaeological deposits, and damages the experience of visitors to the site (both residents and tourists). More broadly, other climate impacts may lead to large-scale changes in the surrounding landscape, impacting both archaeological sites that are important in understanding the WHS, and also possibly driving shifts in vegetation cover as farming practice and natural plant ecosystems respond to a changing climate.
Historic Environment Scotland have been leading the way in assessing the risk climate change poses to sites in Scotland. Their work was presented to the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee which took place in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2019.