Cultural heritage sites and climate

Climate change may influence preservation conditions for our cultural heritage such as archaeological cultural monuments below ground, buildings and landscape. Various types of decay processes are continuously affecting our cultural heritage, but climate change may change the speed of these processes or strengthen their impact.

Therefore, NIKU is working on investigating and surveying how vulnerable our cultural heritage is to climate change, the risk to which our cultural heritage is exposed, and adaptations that can be made to counter any effects of climate change. How local authorities can work on adapting for climate change, including through planning, is also an important field of knowledge for NIKU. 

The effects of climate change can be divided into two main groups depending on for how long the effects will influence the cultural monuments - short-term and long-term:

Short-term effects
Short-term climate changes are often abrupt and caused by extreme weather. There has always been extreme weather, but its frequency can be expected to increase, and consequently its impact on cultural heritage sites will also increase.  Examples of effects that can affect cultural heritage sites for a short period are phenomena such as extreme precipitation, floods and landslides.

Long-term effects
Long-term effects influence cultural heritage sites over time. The damage caused may be small but lasting. Examples include: erosion, rising sea levels, biological decay such as mould, fungus and rot, frost bursting, or salt bursting.  Short-term effects can often result in the occurrence of long-term effects.  For example, more frequent extreme precipitation and normal precipitation could result in more frost bursting rock. This would thus influence the preservation conditions for rock art.

Necessary measures
The measures necessary to counter the impact climate change may have on cultural heritage sites can be divided into three main groups:

  • Preventive measures
  • Emergency measures
  • Conservation measures

These measures should be coordinated with other climate adaptation measures linked to the protection of human life, drinking water and infrastructure. This is important to ensure other climate adaptation measures do not result in secondary effects for cultural heritage sites.

Click here to read more about climate change and energy efficiency in buildings 

Risk and vulnerability surveys, climate planning in local authorities
NIKU has participated in many larger research and surveys projects relating to the effects of adaptations for climate change. We also have long experience of assisting local authorities and other public and private developers with planning and developing projects. Given this knowledge and expertise, we can assist local authorities and others with carrying out risk and vulnerability analyses concerning cultural heritage sites and the climate as part of a local authority's land-use planning, and also help draw up proposed strategies and measures for preventing these effects and protecting valuable cultural heritage sites.

NIKU has carried out a number of laser scanning projects since 2005 in which various landscapes and various parts of the country have been scanned from the air. In recent years, laser technology has developed from being a method reserved for narrow interests to having large and varied applications that cover a broad spectrum of importance to both business and social development.

Scanning data collected using laser instruments provides a basis for producing very precise reproductions of objects and surfaces. When, about 10 years ago, laser scanning instruments started to be installed in aeroplanes it also became possible to produce very high resolution surveys of entire landscapes. This has opened up major opportunities within surveying and monitoring cultural heritage sites.

One of the primary advantages of aerial laser scanning is that one can choose to work with a terrain model with or without vegetation, which can be removed from the model. Vegetation-free terrain models are well suited for analysing, interpreting and visualising conditions on the ground in 3D from all angles and aspects that lie in-between a frog's eye and a bird eye's perspective. The use of aerial laser scanning represents a quantum leap within surveying and visualisation. Aerial laser scanning was first used in archaeology at the start of the 2000s and its use has been increasing ever since.

The method has been adopted for both surveying highly visible and familiar cultural heritage sites in agricultural landscapes and to identity and survey cultural heritage sites in forests. Recently, aerial laser scanning has also been used in garden archaeology. The purpose of the laser scanning projects NIKU has carried out has been to test the use of airborne laser scanning in relation to demonstrating and documenting cultural heritage sites from the air, with a special focus on cultural heritage sites in forests.

NIKU is working to optimise the use of aerial scanning within management, research and providing information about cultural heritage sites through a number of research and development projects. Methods are also being developed for environmental monitoring based on this method. The method can still be described as new, and the interest in adopting this as a tool within cultural heritage site management and research is steadily growing.