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23 September 2007
10,000 Scottish sites at risk from climate change

More than 10,000 of the most important ancient and historical sites around Scotland's coastline are at risk of being destroyed by the storms and rising sea levels that will come with global warming. Sites in jeopardy include the neolithic settlement of Skara Brae on Orkney and the prehistoric ruins at Jarlshof on Shetland. Others under threat range from Iron Age brochs to Mesolithic middens.
     New surveys for Historic Scotland reveal that the remains of communities up to 9000 years old could be lost for ever due to accelerating coastal erosion. The potential loss is incalculable and has alarmed experts. "This is a uniquely valuable and totally irreplaceable part of the nation's cultural heritage, with much still to teach us about our past," said Tom Dawson, an archaeologist at the University of St Andrews. "The coast continues to erode. Although wildlife and the natural habitat may be able to recover, ancient sites will be destroyed forever, and the remnants of our ancestors will be lost."
     Dawson manages a group called Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (Scape), which was set up in 2001 to protect ancient shoreline sites. With the help of local Shorewatch' groups across the country, Scape has been investigating the status of the sites. So far some 30% of Scotland's coastline has been surveyed, discovering 11,500 archaeological sites of which 3500 are judged to be at risk of erosion. According to Dawson, that suggests that more than 10,000 sites around the whole coast are likely to be at risk.
     Many of the archaeological sites are concentrated on Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and parts of the west coast, which are known to be particularly vulnerable to storms. Many sites have yet to be excavated and properly studied. Others are iconic and well-known remains defended by old and eroding seawalls, such as Skara Brae, Jarlshof, the Broch of Gurness on Orkney. Dawson accepted that it would be impossible to save all the sites. But he stressed how important it was to try to map, study and preserve as many as possible in order of priority.
     A conference on climate change is being organised by the Historic Environment Advisory Council for Scotland (HEACS), which advises ministers. It will hear evidence of the widespread dangers posed by worsening weather. "Archaeological sites, ancient monuments and historic buildings are all threatened by climate change," said HEACS secretary, Olwyn Owen. "But they also have much to teach us. This is not the first time that Scotland's inhabitants have had to adapt to change."
     Mike Corfield, the former chief scientist of English Heritage, argued that penetrating rain and other threats were going to get worse with global warming. As well as the risks to coastal sites and historic buildings, Corfield was worried about valuable artefacts buried underground. Alterations in the chemistry of the soil triggered by climate change could accelerate corrosion, he suggested.

Source: Sunday Herald (23 September 2007)

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