Why does heritage matter during a climate crisis?

We’re marking International Day for Monuments and Sites by examining how climate change affects our historic huts and ultimately, why heritage matters during a climate crisis.

Why does heritage matter during a climate crisis?

We’re marking International Day for Monuments and Sites by examining how climate change affects our historic huts and ultimately, why heritage matters during a climate crisis.

Why does heritage matter during a climate crisis?

18/04/2023

We’re marking International Day for Monuments and Sites by examining how climate change affects our historic huts and ultimately, why heritage matters during a climate crisis.

The evidence for climate change is held in Antarctica’s deep archive of ice and rock but also in the records and data collected by scientists during the previous century. It is those scientists, their legacy and the sites they used to make those early observations, that we at UKAHT have the privilege to care for. 

The cutting-edge science conducted in Antarctica, upon which we all rely to better understand the climate crisis, rests on the shoulders of these early pioneers of science and exploration. 

Historic photo of Port Lockroy

Port Lockroy was established in 1944 during Operation Tabarin (Credit: BAS Archive)

Antarctic science goes back to the early days of exploration with scientists joining the early expeditions of Cook, Scott and many others. The men of Operation Tabarin, in establishing Base A at Port Lockroy founded the British scientific programme in Antarctica, now the British Antarctic Survey. Legions of men and women have pushed the boundaries of science and exploration in Antarctica to help us better understand our world, to open our eyes to our impact on our climate and to warn us of what lies ahead if we don’t act now. 

While facts and figures may drive government climate policy, they rarely stir emotion with the strength that storytelling can. Heritage tells stories and has the power to touch people’s hearts, guide human action and galvanise public opinion. Understanding and preserving our past is intrinsic to our future, particularly in Antarctica.

Heritage and climate

Climate change poses the greatest threat to Antarctica and its ecosystems. During a period referred to as an Antarctic heatwave, between 1992 and 2017, global warming caused the loss of nearly 2,700 billion tonnes of ice from Antarctica and contributed to around 8mm to mean sea level rise. The rate of this ice loss has quadrupled since the end of the 20th century.

Antarctica is increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts, with the continent predicted to warm by around 4°C by 2100 under a ‘business as usual’ greenhouse gas emission scenario. This will be devastating for the precious life there.

An often neglected element of the impact of climate change on Antarctica is the impact on cultural heritage sites. There are 92 Historic Sites and Monuments (HSMs) across Antarctica with the highest concentration on the Peninsula  – including six huts managed by UKAHT – and over 200 years of intermittent human habitation.

Modern photo of Port Lockroy from the water

Port Lockroy is located on the Antarctic Peninsula (Credit: Helen Annan/UKAHT)

All our HSMs are situated on the Antarctic Peninsula which, during the latter half of the 20th century, warmed more than any other terrestrial environment in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Climate models tell us that the impacts could be devastating with the melting of the permafrost, rising sea levels, powerful storms and increased precipitation – as seen this past season when our team was confronted with four meters of snow blanketing Base A.

Another impact of ice melt is the isostatic rebound of the terrain. This is where subsidence or uplift of the Earth's crust follows significant changes to the amount of ice on the land. Essentially, our huts are under threat from the sea and land as a direct result of climate change. 

A team member digs out the snow

Digging out Bransfirld House after a storm (Credit: Clare Ballantyne/UKAHT)

We are already witnessing first-hand the impacts of the changing climate on our huts: high snowfall has caused structural damage; increased rainfall means that our timber structures require more frequent maintenance and care; and meltwater torrents are threatening to erode the foundations of our buildings. Our conservation programme is responding to these increased pressures through appropriate repairs and intervention, regular maintenance and data collection and analysis.

“We are seeing the impacts of climate change first-hand as our heritage sites are all set within a very vulnerable landscape. Our flagship site Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula was also Britain’s very first scientific base on the continent, and the place where Antarctic science began, so we have a particular passion and unique perspective on the realities of the climate crisis.” – Camilla Nichol, UKAHT CEO

Climate change is the single biggest threat we have to our Antarctic heritage. To lose these historic huts is to lose a significant piece of British Antarctic history and legacy forever.

Why does heritage matter?

We believe that by highlighting the effects of climate change on heritage sites in Antarctica we can help more people comprehend the tragedy of climate change and inspire stronger connections and a deeper understanding of this important place. Our supporters feel an emotional attachment to our sites, the stories they hold and the wildlife associated with them such as the Gentoo colony at Port Lockroy. 

“Heritage is really the cumulative memory of humankind and the memory of communities. It anchors us to place. It is something from which we derive our identity. It gives us a grounding in the world. Without heritage, people lack that anchoring, that identity, that sense of community. The glue that holds us all together. And so when climate change loosens those bonds, it loosens the community.” – Andrew Potts, ICOMOS

While our mission is inextricably linked to those organisations striving to stop and reverse climate change, its ultimate role is to preserve and promote Britain’s fascinating history and legacy in Antarctica for future generations. But we must also acknowledge our history is set within a landscape that needs protection.

Damoy Hut being repainted

Heritage carpenters at work on Damoy (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)

Part of our role as conservators is to work as an Antarctic Heritage advisor to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. We recently also joined the Climate Heritage Network – a global movement to engage culture and heritage with the climate crisis. 

As seen in the global mourning after the 2019 fire that ravaged Notre Dame in Paris or the 2022 forest fire that swept across Easter Island severely damaging its iconic moai statues, places of cultural significance can be unifying points of mass feeling.

This is exactly the same for heritage in Antarctica. We believe Antarctica, its heritage, its history, its people, its stories, its ecosystem and its wildlife are all worth saving. 

It’s our job to show you why.

Two workers on the roof of the heritage hut

Detaille Hut undergoing restoration in 2014 (Credit: T Morgan/UKAHT)

What is International Day for Monuments and Sites?

In 1982, International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) established 18 April as the International Day for Monuments and Sites. This was followed by UNESCO's adoption during its 22nd General Conference. 

ICOMOS, made up of over 10,000 individual members in 151 countries, works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage around the world. It is the only global non-government organisation of this kind, which is dedicated to promoting and conservating architectural and archaeological heritage.

Each year, ICOMOS proposes a theme for International Day for Monuments and Sites. This year, they have chosen to explore the theme of ‘Heritage and Climate’.

Our historic huts at a glance

Read more about the six historic sites we manage on the Antarctic Peninsula on our heritage page.

1. Port Lockroy

Location: Goudier Island
Coordinates: 64º49’S, 63º30’W
Established: 1944
Historic Site and Monument Number: 61 (1995)

Our flagship site, Base A, Port Lockroy, was the first permanent British base to be established on the Antarctic Peninsula – and so given the first letter of the alphabet.


2. Damoy Hut

Location: Wiencke Island
Coordinates: 64° 49’S, 63°31’W
Established: 1973
Historic Site and Monument Number: 84 (2009)

Damoy Hut is Antarctica’s only protected historic transit facility and skiway. It provided shelter and safe passage for scientists.


3. Detaille Island Hut

Location: Detaille Island, Lallemand Fjord
Coordinates: 66°52’S, 66°48’W
Established: 1956
Historic Site and Monument Number: 83 (2009)

Detaille Island Hut was established as a British science base used primarily for mapping, geology and meteorology.


4. Horseshoe Island Hut

Location: Horseshoe Island, Marguerite Bay
Coordinates: 67°48′S, 67°18′W
Established: 1955
Historic Site and Monument Number: 63 (1995)

Horseshoe Island Hut was established as a scientific base for research including geology, meteorology and topographic surveys. 


5. Stonington Island Hut

Location:  Stonington Island, Marguerite Bay
Coordinates: 68°11'S, 67°00'W
Established: 1946
Historic Site and Monument Number: 64 (1995)

Stonington was the second British hut built on the Peninsula, originally used as a base for sledging operations in the area.


6. Wordie House

Location: Winter Island
Coordinates: 65°15′S, 64°16′W
Established: 1947
Historic Site and Monument Number: 62 (1995)

The hut is named after James Wordie, chief scientist and geologist on Shackleton's Endurance expedition of 1914–17.


(Lead image credit: gpils27/Shutterstock)

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