A New Way to Assess Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage Sites

July 2, 2019 | 10:57 am
Adam Markham
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

The stone-age village of Skara Brae, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, is at high risk from climate change according to the results of a new impact assessment launched this week at the annual World Heritage Committee meeting.

Dr. Alistair Rennie from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Dynamic Coast project explains the processes of accelerated coastal erosion at Skara Brae, Orkney, to CVI workshop participants. Photo: Adam Markham


More than 5000 years old and one of the best preserved Neolithic site in Europe, Skara Brae is part of a World Heritage property that also includes the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the Maeshowe chamber tomb – known for its alignment with the sun’s rays at the Winter Solstice and its Viking graffiti. These spectacular places are on the Orkney Islands – an archipelago just a few miles off the north coast of mainland Scotland, famed for its extraordinary density of archaeological sites.

More than 3,000 archaeological sites have been identified so far on Orkney, and a survey carried out by the SCAPE Trust found at least a third of them to be already damaged by coastal erosion or at risk of being so. Whole classes of types of site, for example Iron Age Brochs (defended stone round houses) and boat nousts (haul outs) are endangered.

The new assessment focused solely on the World Heritage property and found it to be “extremely vulnerable” to sea level rise, precipitation change and increased frequency and intensity of storms.

A climate impacts workshop in Scotland

UCS worked in partnership with James Cook University, Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the University of the Highlands and Islands, Orkney Islands Council and ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) to test a new rapid assessment methodology – the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) – for the first time on a cultural World Heritage site.

Thirty stakeholders, including archaeologists, climate scientists, heritage managers, businesses and local community members gathered in Orkney for 3 days in April 2019. The workshop applied the CVI methodology and concluded that Skara Brae and the group of sites with which it makes up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage property are in the highest category of climate risk.

The finding was announced at the 43rd World Heritage Committee meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, on July 2nd where more than 150 nations gathered to discuss the protection of some of the planet’s most iconic and important natural and cultural sites.

Coastal erosion at the end of the sea wall protecting the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Photo: Adam Markham.

The development of the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI)

UCS first identified the need for a systematic review of climate risk to all World Heritage properties in a 2016 report published with UNESCO and UNEP. Then in 2017, at a meeting that UCS participated in on the German Baltic island of Vilm where experts gathered to discuss priorities for the revision of the World Heritage Committee’s decade-old climate policy, the idea for a vulnerability index for sites at risk from climate change was introduced.

Two researchers at Australia’s James Cook University, oceanographer Scott Heron and Jon Day – a former director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – had taken up the challenge to design a rapid assessment methodology that could be used for all types of World Heritage sites.

Following more development, the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) was first tested at the natural World Heritage site, Shark Bay in Western Australia in 2018.

Soon after, UCS joined the CVI development team, and ICOMOS (one of the three official Advisory Bodies to the World Heritage Committee) included it as a project of its new Climate Change and Heritage Working Group.

The foundation of the CVI is to look at how key climate change impacts the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of World Heritage properties (a property’s OUV describes the characteristics for which it was inscribed on the World Heritage List). If OUV is significantly degraded or lost, a property can be put on the World Heritage in Danger list, or even de-listed completely.

In addition to assessing climate risk to the OUV, a very important aspect of the CVI is that it also looks at the economic, social and cultural vulnerability of the community associated with the World Heritage site.

 The CVI’s potential for World Heritage Management

The detailed and comprehensive report from the Orkney CVI workshop, which was unveiled at the meeting in Azerbaijan, will serve as a model for other CVI reports in the future. The CVI process will continue to be honed and strengthened in a pilot phase that will continue at least through 2020, with site workshops already being planned for the cultural landscape of the Vega Archipelago in Norway, and the natural tri-national Wadden Sea property (Netherlands/Germany/Denmark).

HES will be integrating the CVI findings into the revision of the management plan for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney (a process that began in 2019), and the agency has proposed that CVI workshops also be undertaken for two additional Scottish World Heritage sites in 2020 – the Antonine Wall, and the island of St. Kilda.

The pilot CVI workshops in Shark Bay and Orkney have demonstrated that for the first time, we have a climate risk assessment methodology customized for World Heritage than can be effectively applied across very different types of sites. The CVI is scientifically robust, transparent, repeatable and flexible enough to work everywhere from an underwater archaeology site to a tropical forest park – critical attributes if it is to be adopted within the World Heritage community.

Schematic outline of the CVI process, leading to assessments of OUV and Community vulnerabilities

It has the potential to be a hugely valuable tool for World Heritage managers and the governments that are parties to the Convention, to help them accurately understand and plan for the climate risk they are facing at each property. If applied to all World Heritage sites the CVI could help prioritize action on climate resilience and spur greater urgency amongst the States Parties in meeting their commitments under the Paris Agreement.