Resolving the Effects of Climate Change on Historic Properties

A previous article focused on how land managers/agencies could go about assessing the effects of climate change on historic properties. This article moves to the next step, how to resolve the effects of climate change on historic properties.

The National Park Service (NPS) Climate Change Response Strategy

The NPS Climate Change Response Strategy describes goals and objectives to guide historic preservation actions under four integrated components:
science, adaptation, mitigation, and communication. These are the four pillars of climate change response defined in the NPS Climate Change Response Strategy (2010) that can be implemented by any land manager or agency.

  • Science: Conduct scientific research and vulnerability assessments necessary to support adaptation, mitigation, and communication efforts. Collaborate with scientific agencies and institutions to meet the specific needs of management as it confronts the challenges of climate change. Learn from and apply the best available climate change science.
  • Mitigation: Reduce the carbon footprint of the land manager/agency. Promote energy efficient practices, such as alternative transportation. Enhance carbon sequestration as one of many ecosystem services. Integrate mitigation into all business practices, planning, and the organization’s culture.
  • Adaptation: Develop the adaptive capacity for managing natural and cultural resources and infrastructure under a changing climate. Inventory resources at risk and conduct vulnerability assessments. Prioritize and implement actions, and monitor the results. Explore scenarios, associated risks, and possible management options. Integrate climate change impacts into facilities management.
  • Communication: Provide effective communication about climate change and impacts to the public. Train staff and managers in the science of climate change and decision tools for coping with change. Lead by example.

How are Climate Action Plans (CAP) addressing Historic Preservation?

This is a bit of a trick question, in that most CAP are not addressing historic preservation directly. The CAP reviewed for this article in California, Colorado and Hawai’i, three states that are leading the way on planning for climate change, do not explicitly address historic properties. They do effectively summarize the science that climate planning is based on and their own assumptions for how climate change will affect their municipality’s infrastructure. The CAP also put forth reasonable mitigation to help reduce the municipality’s carbon footprint. Lastly, most municipalities that have taken the time to consider and complete a CAP, have made efforts to communicate with the public and lead by example. However, typically there’s no mention of adaptive management strategies to address impacts to natural or cultural resources in any CAP reviewed.

Mitigation are activities that reduce an organization’s impact on climate change; whereas adaptation takes into account that activities are occurring and what investments do we need to do to adapt to the changes that are ensuing.

Why is Historic Preservation Important in light of Climate Change?

One of the first tenets that archaeologists learn during their professional training is that the past is the key to the present. Cultural resources are our record of the human experience. Collectively, archeological sites, cultural landscapes, ethnographic resources, museum collections, and historic buildings and structures connect one generation to the next.

There are two primary and equal considerations for cultural resources in relation to climate change:

(1) cultural resources are primary sources of data regarding human interactions with environmental change over time; and
(2) changing climates affect the preservation and maintenance of cultural resources.

Adaptation planning and implementation will require collaboration and coordinated actions among and across many jurisdictions.The NPS proposes a generalized planning framework constructed in the form of a logic model that aligns with six principles for effective decision making and identifies specific products, tools, and approaches (such as down-scaled climate models, vulnerability assessments, and scenario planning) that can be developed for on-the-ground adaptation planning. This is an adaptive framework that incorporates current knowledge with tools for exploring future uncertainty. With an increased focus on adaptive management and scenario planning, land managers/agencies will be better equipped to respond to the rapid pace of decisions demanded by climate change.

Climate Action Plans reviewed for this article:




Ms. Garcia-Herbst would like to use her training at the Climate Reality Leadership Corps in 2017 in Denver, as well as climate science, to promote historic preservation in areas affected by sea level rise and climate change related erosion, such as coastlines, rivers and deforested areas.

Assessing the Effects of Climate Change on Historic Properties

Point_Loma_LighthouseIn 2014, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) held a press conference to discuss a new report on the risks that climate change presents to landmarks and historic sites across the nation. The report, titled “National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening The United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites,” [] focuses on how sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and larger wildfires are damaging archaeological sites, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes. Society for American Archaeology President, Dr. Jeffrey Altschul, delivered remarks focused on the importance of protecting archaeological sites from climate change.

Currently, protecting historic sites from climate change has been done one site at a time, in a “save my lighthouse approach,” which will over time become cost prohibitive. Dr. Altschul asserts that there must be a shift in thinking, in which we as a nation assess what historical sites and landmarks we want to save and can be saved.

Technological advances are not our only tool to solve the challenge of climate change. Information we have about humanity’s responses to past climate change, gathered through archaeological research, can also be used to determine the best way to deal with these challenges.

Even with significant efforts to mitigate GHG emissions today, future climate projections anticipate that climate change may have significant effects on precipitation, temperature, and weather patterns.

  • Rising sea levels are eroding coastal sites and cemetaries.
  • Rising temperatures will pose threats to wooden buildings as termites and other pests are able survive at higher latitudes and altitudes.
  • Increased rainfall and river flow and downcutting is eroding mud-brick ruins and buried archaeological sites.
  • Increased lightning and fires are destroying historic buildings and archaeological sites, as well as creating conditions for increased erosion of buried archaeological sites.
  • Creeping desert sands are blasting the traces of ancient civilizations.
  • The melting of ice is causing millennia-old organic remains preserved in ice to become exposed and rot.
  • As coastal communities relocate inland, inland sites will be impacted.

Now is the time to assess your property for archaeological sites, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes that may be impacted by the effects of climate change, or that have already been damaged by erosion or wildfires. The next step is to take action to resolve the effects of climate change on historic properties.

Ms. Garcia-Herbst would like to use her training at the Climate Reality Leadership Corps in 2017 in Denver, as well as climate science, to promote historic preservation in areas affected by sea level rise and climate change related erosion, such as coastlines, rivers and deforested areas.

Photo: A view of the lighthouse at Point Loma, San Diego. Credit: U.S. Navy.