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What does climate change mean for cultural heritage?

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The Institute for Sustainable Heritage has built its own NOAH'S ARK of knowledge in the fight against climate change.

What does climate change mean for cultural heritage?

The Charles Bridge in Prague is one of the structures considered to be under threat from the effects of climate change investigated in the research project.

Credit: Jay Dantinne for Unsplash

It all started with old, flooded timber buildings. Such a structure should be dried quickly so that it can be put back into use. Or should it? Actually, it’s been known for a long time that drying a building out quickly can cause physical stress and long-term damage.

This dilemma was the starting point for research led by The Bartlett’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH) starting in 2002. Modelling by a team led by Professor May Cassar, Director of the institute, showed how dangerous moisture gradients develop in historic wooden buildings.

And this danger is expected to increase. Over the next 100 years, changes in temperature, rainfall, extreme climatic events, soil conditions, groundwater and sea level are all likely to affect the material environment – and that includes our cultural heritage. Meaning that, as climate change increases, so too will flood damage to historic buildings.

It’s difficult to assess the overall risk posed by climate change using the data that’s currently available. Also, there’s the challenge of linking global changes to the response of material surfaces of archaeological and historic structures.

To protect the past, predict the future

The NOAH’S ARK Project, which received successive funding over three years, set out to produce some clarity and offer advice. Its aims were to determine the meteorological parameters and changes most critical to the built cultural heritage; to research, predict and describe the effects of climate change on Europe’s built cultural heritage over the next 100 years; to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies for historic buildings, sites, monuments and materials that are likely to be worst affected by climate change effects and associated disasters; and to advise policy-makers and legislators.

Our research has helped to focus attention on the mitigation and adaptation strategies needed to safeguard our cultural heritage.

Professor May Cassar

A Vulnerability Atlas and Adaptation Guidelines for heritage managers was produced to model the effects of different adaptation strategies under various climate scenarios. The research on the stresses caused by rapid drying was conducted in partnership with an insurance company and a dehumidification company, both of whom benefitted commercially from the research in ways that exemplify its wider impacts on the sector. For one heritage insurance partner – Ecclesiastical Insurance – the research confirmed what it had long advocated for: that rapid drying of flood-damaged buildings posed a risk to heritage properties’ structures, fixtures and fittings, and was to be avoided.

In the past, heritage managers have focused on average rather than extreme climate conditions affecting our important historic buildings. But as a result of ISH’s evidence, people around the world are waking up to the risks of climate change to cultural heritage. The impact of the research has been felt through the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the Council of Europe and, in the UK, English Heritage and the National Trust.

The management of a large proportion of the properties, and of listed buildings and World Heritage Sites in particular, is affected by ISH’s research findings. In 2008, for example, UNESCO World Heritage Centre published the Policy Document on the Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage Properties which referred to ISH research as “a model for other regions of the world”.

“Perhaps the most significant impact of the research,” says Cassar, “is its contribution to creating a paradigm shift in how people in the heritage sector understand the risks of climate change to cultural heritage. Our research was the first to highlight these risks and, in so doing, has helped focus attention on the mitigation and adaptation strategies needed to safeguard our cultural heritage.”

The Institute for Sustainable Heritage is solving real-world cultural heritage problems through groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary research and teaching for future heritage leaders. It is part of The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (BSEER) in UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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