Climate Change and its Impact on the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Methodology which was trialled in Orkney to look at the effect of climate change on vulnerable archaeological sites has gone before the World Heritage Committee. It is recommended that the method used in Orkney ‘The Climate Vulnerability Index ‘ (CVI) is adopted to record the changes which are occurring at World Heritage sites across the globe.

Skara Brae and waves

Skara Brae Neolithic Village protected by a sea wall

CVI looked at why The Heart of Neolithic Orkney was selected as a UNESCO  World Heritage site  – the  Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) – and the “economic, social and cultural importance of the site for the local community and the potential impact of any loss, as well as its resilience to climate change risks.”

The work in Orkney was a collaboration between many organisations and individuals including:  Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the University of the Highlands and Islands, James Cook University (JCU, Australia), Orkney Islands Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and ICOMOS Climate Change and Heritage Working Group.

Ewan Hyslop, Head of Technical Research and Science at HES, said:

“While the findings of the report reiterate the severity of climate change risk to the World Heritage site in Orkney, there are also positives to take away in terms of the resilience of the site and the wider community to manage the impacts of climate change in the future.

“It’s heartening that work undertaken in Scotland could have such a significant positive impact for heritage sites sites across the world, and we hope that the World Heritage Committee will recommend that the CVI is adopted as a standard for measuring climate change risk to World Heritage sites.”


Adam Markham, Deputy Director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS and a co-developer of the CVI said:

“Climate change is the fastest growing threat to World Heritage sites.”

“Sites worldwide are being damaged and degraded by melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons, yet there is no standardized way to assess vulnerability.

“The CVI is being developed to fill that gap, so that experts and site managers can use local knowledge and the best available science to determine the risk level, and then take the appropriate action to protect them.”

You can download the whole report by clicking on this link: Climate Risk Assessment for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site

Stones of Stenness

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is managed by Historic Environment Scotland but due to the spread out nature of the monuments HES work in partnership with other organisations. A Management Plan brought together HES with Orkney Islands Council,
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The existing plan ends this year and a new one will be produced for 2020 – 25.

The Report lists the work ongoing by HES:

  • periodic stone conservation works at Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness
  • improvements to pedestrian surfaces at Skara Brae to reduce erosion and enhance access and improve visitor flow around the site
  • various approaches to improve the resilience of pedestrian areas at Ring of Brodgar through installation of engineered surfaces beneath modern turf layers
  • repairs to the mound structure at Maeshowe in order to prevent water penetration to the interior resulting from increasing rainfall
  • a long-term programme of repair and extensive targeted improvement works on the sea wall that protects Skara Brae.

Visitors coming from cruise ships to Orkney have risen from 36,000 in 2011 to 113,000 in 2017 – for most of them Orkney’s World Heritage sites will be at the top of their list of must sees.

In 2018 it is estimated that:

  • 142,000 people visited the Ring of Brodgar.
  • 112,000 visitors went to Skara Brae. This unique Neolithic village settlement is perched on the coast and in a very confined space.
  • 80,000 people stopped off at the Standing Stones of Stenness
  • 28,000 visited Maeshowe Neolithic tomb.

The economic value of Tourism to the whole of Orkney was valued in 2017 as £77.5 million.  Most of this is on Mainland – the largest of the islands of Orkney.

The Orkney climate is changing and this combined with the increased footfall on the World Heritage sites is having an effect.


Compared to the period 1961-1990, the decade 2008-2017 shows an increase of 85% in warm periods of over 6 days duration. Over this decade there has been reduction in icing days (days with minimum temp below zero) from 9.2 to 7.3. Lowest recorded temperature has decreased from -10.6°C to -8.3°C


Compared to the period 1961-1990 the decades between 1981 and 2017 show increases of 19% for rainfall amounts on extreme wet days, and a 16% increase for the highest value of rainfall over a 5-day period.

The sea level is also rising.

Current projections for Orkney show that sea-level rise is predicted to be in the region of 0.2 m to 0.4 m by 2050, relative to the 1981 to 2000 baseline, and 0.4 m to 1.00 m by 2100, under a future high-emissions scenario

The threat to Skara Brae in particular would result from these factors and an increase in storms.

There exists the potential for a single extreme event destroying part of Skara Brae

The results will be used to help develop the future management plan for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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