The National Trust is Britain’s leading heritage organisation, responsible for caring for some of the most iconic landscapes and buildings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. One of the things that threatens that heritage is climate change, through the erosion of coastlines, heat damage or storms. In fact, the trust says that “climate change is the single biggest threat to the precious landscapes and historic houses we care for.”
To help to assess the risks, the trust has created an interactive map. It shows the change in risk between 2020 and 2060 for a variety of different factors, including floods, heat and wind damage. One risk I hadn’t heard of before that appears on the map is ‘soil heave‘. That’s when an increase in moisture causes clay soils to expand, and as the ground shifts it can damage buildings above. It’s a noted risk to old buildings, as climate change leads to more extreme rainfall.
The rise in threat is dramatic – from 30% of sites affected in 2020 to 71%. That includes 72% of the country’s ‘scheduled monuments’, which are its most significant historic sites.
Of course, the point of identifying the risk is that you can then do something about it. Individual National Trust sites will be able to analyse the specific threats and mitigate them. Trees can be planted and wetlands restored to slow the movement of storm water, for example, and reduce flood risk. This is already being applied in some locations that have experienced flooding, including Lyme Park in Cheshire, which flooded in 2019.
Some locations will have to adapt to increased heat, including the many gardens that are managed by the National Trust. Some of their gardeners are already planting heat and drought resistant plants, in anticipation of warmer and drier conditions. The Trust is paying more attention to shade, and how it can be used to cool and protect sites. In some places there have already been significant losses. Shropshire’s Long Mynd, for example, is a favourite spot where we go walking as a family when visiting the in-laws. It has lost almost three quarters of its heather, due to dry weather and an infestation of beetles which thrive in warmer temperatures.
The National Trust is investigating each site, but also has climate goals across the whole organisation. They aim to be zero carbon by 2030, and they are planting 20 million trees.
Climate change is often thought of as a risk to the future, which it is. But it also affects our past, or at least our experience of it. That’s true for Britain and for the world, and the coming decades will have a significant impact on global heritage, on what remains of ancient buildings and landscapes, and what is preserved for future generations to appreciate and learn from.