Rising Seas Are Swallowing Scotland's Stone Age Ruins

Skara Brae is one of the best examples of neolithic architecture in Europe. johnbraid/Shutterstock

Scotland’s Orkney Islands contain some of the best remaining examples of structures from the Neolithic Period. These Stone Age buildings have drawn archaeologists and tourists because there are very few similar sites left in the world. Unfortunately, many of these 5,000-year-old remnants won’t be around for too much longer.

A recent report said that many of the sites on the Orkneys are under threat due to climate change. The report, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), highlighted these places because they are likely to soon fall victim to rising seas, increasingly powerful storms, coastal erosion and other events.

The Stone Age sites in the Orkneys, and throughout Scotland, were built near the sea because of its importance to the lives of Stone Age peoples. According to the lead author of the UCS report, Adam Markham, these locations, combined with rising sea levels and resulting coastal erosion, have made “Orkney and the whole of Scotland... the poster child for eroding archaeology sites.”

Markham told Scotland’s the National that the problem is widespread. "There are thousands of them and many of them are being lost to coastal erosion and storms... If sea level rise and storms get worse because of global warming then we are going to be losing huge amounts of British heritage directly into the sea.”

Orkney has approximately 3,000 such sites, and about half of them are in danger due to climate-change-related events.

A sprint to find and document ancient artifacts before the disappear

Shetland Islands
Scotland's Shetland Islands are also struggling with threats from rising tides. Marcin Kadziolka/Shutterstock

What can be done? In many cases, archaeologists and scientists (sometimes with the help of civilian volunteers) are taking the only remaining action that they can: They are cataloging the sites and performing speedy excavations to find any remaining artifacts.

A New York Times article on this effort highlighted an ancient tomb structure on Sanday Island, which is part of Orkney. Discovered in the 1980s, archaeologists decided to leave it mostly untouched. However, when rising tides started washing away the artifacts around the site, teams hustled to take photos and measurements and perform other research to document the area before it was washed away. A community group on Sanday moved another structure into a heritage center away from the coast before it was completely destroyed.

Similar efforts are going on throughout Orkney and on Scotland's Shetland Islands, where similar sites near the coast are under threat from the same rising tides. When they leave each season, researchers working in these places are not certain what will remain when they return the next year.

Coastal erosion is not a new phenomenon on the Orkney Islands. In 1927, a sea wall was built to protect one of the most extensive sites, a largely intact Neolithic settlement called Skara Brae. However, the pace of coastal erosion has doubled since the 1970s, and formerly protected coastline areas are now experiencing erosion for the first time. In a few cases, authorities have erected barriers to slow the erosion, but these may only be a temporary solution that could preserve the sites for a few more generations.

A worldwide problem

flooding in Venice, Italy
Flooding is a regular occurrence in Venice, Italy, as famous destinations like Piazza San Marco are regularly under water. Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock.com

The ancient structures on the Orkney Islands are not the only historic sites threatened by climate change. Venice, the Italian city that has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, has spent several billion dollars trying to protect the Renaissance and Baroque buildings that are being flooded and eroded by rising waters. The city's famous squares now experience flooding on a regular basis. Meanwhile, on Easter Island, waves, ever-rising tides and strong storms have knocked down some of the famous Moai statues and washed away the platforms on which they sit.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also highlighted the effects of climate change on historic sites in the United States. They contend that Hurricane Sandy, which caused more than $70 million in damage to Liberty Island and Ellis Island in New York City, was amplified by rising sea levels. The higher water level meant that the storm surge exceeded that of stronger storms in the past, and Sandy was wider than most hurricanes. By comparison, it was three times wider than Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, the National Park Service performed a study of its coastal properties and determined that the entire Liberty National Monument was in a high-risk category for damage from future weather events.

While ancient sites and artifacts around the world are threatened by climate change, the Neolithic sites on the Orkney Islands are especially at risk because of their age, their prevalence, and the speed at which they are being washed into the sea. In many cases, scientists can do nothing except try to document these places before they disappear.