Climate Change and Cultural Resource Management

By Megan Borthwick, Preservation Program Manager

Preservation of historic properties means planning for maintenance and protection of the resources into the future. Managers of cultural resources include any agency or individual responsible for the care and maintenance of cultural and historic resources. For example, National Park Service, Department of the Navy and Forest Service all have cultural resource managers who provide for the preservation of the cultural and historic properties located within their management zones. State and local agencies are also responsible for the care and maintenance of the cultural and historic resources located within their lands. Individuals such as historic home owners or managers of historic places are also cultural resource managers responsible for the cultural and historic properties representative of our collective past. Caring for such important resources requires careful planning for the future. Management of cultural resources must be re-envisioned to address the impending impacts of climate change.

Effects of climate change encompass two categories: events and trends. An increase in natural disaster events are predicted in response to climate change; the two hurricanes and tropical storms that recently impacted Hawai‘i serve as an example of climate change events. Climate trends impacted by climate change include the overall day-to-day changes such as higher temperatures and sea level rises. These changes have major impacts on landscapes and threaten the continued integrity of cultural resources.

Threats of sea level rise to cultural resources are already apparent in Hawai‘i where many of our cultural resources are located in close proximity to the coast and are related to the ocean, such as the fishponds of Kaloko-Honokōhau. Both the functionality and historic integrity of coastal fishponds will be impacted, and this is only one resource type which is severely threatened by impending climate change. How will cultural managers plan for the future protection of these resources in dynamic circumstances?

There are no easy solutions to this worldwide problem, but experts in the field of climate change and cultural resources have begun to develop planning strategies to address the wide variety of issues that cultural resource managers will face.

  • The first important step to any planning strategy, which all responsible agencies and individuals must do, is inventory what resources they have. This starts with a survey of all cultural resources within the management zone. Having an understanding of what resources are there and the integrity of these resources must be determined before any informed decisions can be made.
  • After the cultural resource manager has an understanding of what resources they are responsible for, a priority list should be drafted. Resources must be prioritized by both historic significance and capacity for being protected from climate change threats. Obviously, prioritizing which cultural and historic resources are more important is a very difficult decision. Capability of the land manager to respond to and plan for climate change events and trends must also be clarified in order to prioritize the resources according to which are most feasible to protect.
    Development of criteria to make these decisions should include research, understanding the threats and resources, and input by key stakeholders. Ideally this is part of a programmatic approach to developing guidelines for responses to the threat. Another major consideration is documentation of those resources, and a priority list of what needs to be documented immediately based on those resources deemed least feasible to protect and criteria for protection priority list.
  • Planning is a major component of cultural resource management, yet what cultural resource managers are planning for must shift drastically due the impacts of climate change. Our cultural and historic resources have endured decades and sometimes centuries of change in population, development, and natural disasters. But the threat of climate change is one that we are not accustomed to planning for. There are laws and regulations that address how cultural resources must be considered when there is development, but no regulations on how to address climate change. Exact effects of climate change are largely unknown, yet if we want to protect the cultural resources representative of our history we must start planning now.


Melnick, Robert. Interview with Author. August 6, 2014.
National Park Service. “Preserving Coastal Heritage: Summary Report.” Preserving Coastal Heritage Session, New York: April 3-4, 2014.

Tworek-Hofstetter, Miraiam. “Climate Change at Kaloko-Honokohau.” National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. September 9, 2013. (Accessed August 11, 2014).

2017-04-21T01:01:22+00:00 September 2nd, 2014|Categories: Trends & Issues|