UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


Climate Change and the Historic Environment

"Climate change is an acknowledged threat to both the natural and the historic environment. For example, changes in the intensity and frequency of storm events will pose a challenge to a wide spectrum of the historic environment from coastal sites to veteran trees. Can we measure the likely impact and cost the necessary mitigation?"
State of the Historic Environment Report, English Heritage 2002

With increasing extreme weather being predicted for the UK, and with the major storms of 1990, 1998 and 2000 in the UK costing the insurance industry in excess of £3 billion (data source: Ecclesiastical Insurance Group), dealing with the after effects of floods is devastating, disruptive and expensive. Preventive measures introduced in a timely fashion can go some way towards reducing the extent of damage.

Research Methodology

In 2002, the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London undertook a scoping study for English Heritage on Climate Change and the Historic Environment. The research methodology which identified the significant climate change parameters and their impact on the historic environment in consultation with key stakeholders is summarised in this diagram. 

The published report includes advice on how the historic environment, encompassing historic buildings and collections, buried archaeology and parks and gardens, should adapt to climate change. The advice is summarised below.


  • Effortless Measures - The most effortless way of adapting to the impact of climate change such as floods, intense rainfall, high winds and draught is by streamlining current monitoring, management and maintenance practices to enhance the stability of the historic environment. This makes sense no matter the severity of the impact of climate change.
  • Local Response - The impact of extreme weather is often felt locally or regionally. This is where disaster preparedness and decisions on emergency response should be made. The heritage sector, with a natural affinity with long-term planning, can make a positive contribution to the measures being developed by agencies responsible for climate change impacts in other sectors such as the Environment Agency. To be effective, co-ordination with the Environment Agency and the local Fire Service is essential - as are local cross-disciplinary training programmes on basic preventive maintenance.
  • Preventive Maintenance - Keeping gutters, hoppers and down pipes free of debris may be enough to ensure that during a heavy downpour, water can flow safely away from buildings without wetting walls. Routine preventive maintenance cannot be replaced by infrequent repairs to failing rainwater goods, lead flashing or mortar joins.
  • Emergency Preparedness - Heavy downpours are increasingly being accompanied by high winds, so the immediate protection of storm-damaged property can reduce the risk of further damage. A simple heavy duty tarpaulin that can be safely secured in a storm by trained volunteers can prevent further water damage to the interior of a building.
  • Being Realistic - It has never been a realistic proposition to conserve anything forever or everything for any time at all. Rising sea levels and coastal erosion may cause a re-evaluation of the ‘save all’ approach to the historic environment. Faced with limited resources, great environmental risks and a huge number of cultural assets, a methodical assessment of what is conserved and why, and the value and significance of the commonplace is necessary.
  • Adaptation - Two important foci of the purposeful adaptation of the historic environment to climate change are modifying drainage and rainwater goods in historic buildings and the discreet provision of irrigation and water storage in parks and gardens. These make sense even if there were no climate change, as too much water is being drawn from aquifers and groundwater sources. Opportunities need to be found to roll out and integrate these measures into existing or planned initiatives in buildings, archaeology, parks and gardens.

Professor May Cassar
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Casar, M. and Pender, R. (2005) 'The impact of climate change on cultural heritage:evidence and response', ICOM-CC 14th Triennial meeting, The Hague, ed.s I. Verger, London: James and James, pp. 610-616

Cassar, M. (2005) Climate change and the historic environment, London: Centre for Sustainable Heritage, University College London

Click here to download the academic poster for this project (PDF)