Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Way up at the northern tip of Scotland, and a short ferry ride away, one finds the magnificent, bleak, intriguing islands of Orkney. Signs of human habitation go back 5,000 years, with the ruins of old Norse halls and Neolithic tombs long covered by sand packs and crusted earth, which have protected them through millennium.
It is those earth crusts and sand packs that lead into this story. Most of the grand archaeological finds in the Orkneys have literally been stumbled upon — some Orkney has stubbed his toe on a protruding stone where recent rains, or maybe passing cows, have broken through the grass-covered crust and allowed rains and wind to erode the crust away just a bit exposing a stone that has obviously been worked by man. Whenever one of these ancient buildings or walls gets exposed to wind and rain and weather, erosion quickly begins to eat away at the edges of the fragile soil, exposing more of the ruin and causing some to tumble down.
Here we see a cliff top ruin that has not yet been uncovered and restored. Fallen stones lay on the ground to the right and the interior of the structure is filled with soil and sand. Archaeologists have mapped over 3,000 ancient sites in the Orkneys.
The New York Times published a visually terrific article with soaring moving images of some of these ancient ruins from the air, in the Climate section, titled “Saving Scotland’s Heritage From the Rising Seas”. I highly recommend taking a look, the moving aerial drone footage graphics are wonderful. Unfortunately, the text contains a some misinformation and unfounded claims about sea levels and climate.
Orkney’s past — the archaeology — is a huge tourist draw for the Orkneys and brings in a lot of tourists, scientists, researchers and they bring their money. I would not for a minute blame them for using the ruins as an advertising hook to bring more people to the islands. Unfortunately, the thousands of people also become part of the problem, their footsteps and prying and poking adding to the natural erosion. Even the scientists and their helpers add to the problem, as sites are exposed to view and study, they are also exposed to wind and rain and blowing sand.
Taking the historical view — the long view — one sees that over the last 3-5 thousand years, settlements in the Orkneys have come and gone, Neolithic cultures with their stone circles, Norsemen with their homes and farms. All of these, with the exception of a few, have been buried under blowing sand and soil until they are entirely covered and out of view — leaving maybe a bump or a depression in the landscape.
“Walking across Cata Sand on the island of Sanday on a windy December day in 2015, Professor Downes and colleagues noticed an upright stone and red soil that turned out to be hearth scrapings. They found an early Neolithic house, older than those at Skara Brae.”
With students and archaeologists from her own school and the University of Central Lancashire, Professor Downes has spent the last three summers digging between tides and documenting the artifacts.
“The waters and storms that exposed these sites will also, before long, destroy them. The coastal survey forecasts that Cata Sand will lose about 80 feet of beach by 2050.”
“The grand spaces at the Ness of Brodgar, like the homely kitchens of Skara Brae and the tomb at Maeshowe, were built thousands of years before scribes first told of Buddha and Moses, Lord Vishnu and Jesus Christ.”
And at another site:
“I thought you’d have to be really lucky to find anything,” Kaehlin Terry, 22, a senior from Willamette University in Oregon, said. “But every 20 seconds, you come up with pieces of bone, stone tools, pottery.”
“Across vast historical ages, ordinary time scales blur.”
Why the dark outlook for the Cata Sand site? Geography….
Or as they say in Real Estate — Location, Location, Location:
In taking the millennial long-view, it should be pointed out, in reply to “The waters and storms that exposed these sites will also, before long, destroy them”, that those same waters and storms were responsible long-ago, over millennia, for covering those sites. The storms give and the storms take away.
The Orkney Islands are a treasure trove for archaeologists interested in Neolithic Celtic cultures and Norse-settlements.
The scare story — effective in garnering lots of grants and drawing teams of archeology students and their professors every summer — goes like this:
The Claimed Threat:
“Since 1970, Orkney beaches have eroded twice as fast as in the previous century. Others that had been stable are now shrinking. Rains, falling heavier and more often, are dissolving the crusts of soil and sand packs that protect remnants of civilizations.”
“Their work is urgent. Orkney’s stories are recorded in disappearing ink.”
“Heritage is falling into the sea,” said Prof. Jane Downes, director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands. “It’s a very dramatic and obvious sign of sea level rise and increased storminess.”
Are many Orkney historical sites threatened?
Yes, those that are at the edges of the island facing the seas, including some, like Cata Sands, that are already partially submerged in sea washed sand, must be investigated now and whatever knowledge we can gain from them secured. This is the fate of seaside homes, both now and in the millennia that have gone before. No one knows how many other sites were lost to the sea in the last three thousand years — probably far more than exist now.
Is this the result of “obvious sign of sea level rise and increased storminess.”?
Let’s look at sea level rise first. The closest PSMSL tide gauge is just north of the Orkneys at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands (about 90 miles north and east) facing the North Sea:
From this we can clearly see that 1) Sea level is quite variable with a range of 550mm or 21 inches in this region over this 50 year period. Yellow lines show a range of 100mm or 4 inches. It certainly hasn’t changed range in 50 years.
Looking at the annual means over the same period illustrates that there is nothing unusual going on with SLR in this region. Today’s mean sea level is within the same 4 inch range as sea levels in the early 1960s — though sea level did drop from the 1960s to the turn of the century then regained 3.5 inches to the present. (There is no explanation given for the missing annual data points — the monthly graph shows the same dropped out values).
And the trend? The annual increase in sea level?
Lerwick, Shetlands, is 90 miles from Kirkwall in the Orkneys. Sea Level Rise trend? 0.2 mm/year. Yes, zero point two millimeters per year. In practical terms, that is 1/6th the thickness of a U.S. dime.
The coastal ruins in the Orkneys are not threatened by sea level rise today.
This does not rule out that they may be threatened by the sea in all of its power and glory — certainly the site pictured below will eventually be washed away.
The little sea cliff above is only 2 meters or so and at high tide, or storm conditions with winds onshore, the waves will eventually eat away at the cliff-face. Other sites stand on high ground and are not in any danger whatever. Naturally, there are sites that are in some small danger if no mitigating efforts are made, like sea walls, for sites that are near the shoreline, like the one below.
Above we see a site that has been made into an attraction — with concrete paths for tourists winding around through the sub-surface ruins that have been opened up for viewing.
Are Orkney historical sites endangered by “increased storminess”?
Let’s look at rainfall first as heavy rains can indeed erode sand packs and vegetative crusts — especially once the protective layer has been breached by accident or archeological intention.
Here we have the rainfall records for the last decade:
Rainfall (blue) has been extremely even over the decade, with the sole exception of the current fall and winter which have seen two or three very high rainfall months, 6 inches or 150 mm. Normal monthly rainfall over the decade averages one to two inches with a few months topping 2 inches. The summer of 2018 looks like a mini-drought. The black vertical bars are number of rainy days (unfortunately, with no scale provided.)
What about storminess?
Orkney is famous for its wind:
“[Orkney’s] one outstanding characteristic is wind. No other region in Great Britain can compare with it for the violence and frequency of its winds” —
Magnus Spence. “The Climate of Orkney” 1908 (and that was 100 years ago).
The winds are a blessing as they blow away the “sea-haar” — damp sea fogs:
“Fog and sea-haar are perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Orkney’s weather. Haar – a damp fog from the sea – is common all year round, buy generally more so in the warmer summer months when there is a lack of wind to clear the air.”
Wind, wind, wind would describe the Orkneys for most people — with an average of 30 days a year with gale force winds.
But windy is not the same as “increasing storminess”.
The Orkneys have a history of huge storms:
“On the southern shore of the Bay o’ Skaill, in the West Mainland parish of Sandwick, is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae – one of Orkney’s most-visited ancient sites and regarded by many as one of the most remarkable prehistoric monuments in Europe.
In the winter of 1850, a great storm battered Orkney.
There was nothing particularly unusual about that, but, on this occasion, the combination of wind and extremely high tides stripped the grass from a large mound, then known as “Skerrabra”.”
“The settlement remained undisturbed until 1925, when another storm damaged some of the previously excavated structures. ”
A sea-wall was built to preserve these remains, but during the construction work, yet more ancient buildings were discovered.
In its lifetime, Skara Brae became embedded in its own rubbish and this, together with the encroaching sand dunes, meant the village was gradually abandoned.
Thereafter, the settlement was gradually covered by a drifting wall of sand that hid it from sight for over 40 centuries.
But the elements that exposed Skara Brae to the world are also its greatest nemesis.
The village remains under constant threat by coastal erosion and the onslaught of the sand and sea. In addition, the increasing number of visitors to the site annually are causing problems. Steps are being taken, however, to alleviate, or minimize, this damage.” [ source ]
Skara Brae pictured above — click here for full size image — well worth it.
Author’s Note: This essay project sat half-done for quite some time, as I could not find any way to determine if the Orkney’s had suffered “increased storminess”. The answer recently dropped into my lap in the form of a paper in the journal of the American Meteorological Society, Northeast Atlantic Storm Activity and its Uncertainty from the late 19th to the 21st Century by Oliver Krueger.
Krueger et al. offers this graph of North Sea storminess since the beginning of the modern industrial era (the false starting point of most modern climatology):
What do we see in Krueger? Krueger concludes “This study confirms that long-term storminess levels have returned to average values in recent years and that the multidecadal increase is part of an extended interdecadal oscillation.” The figure shows that there have always been years of very high and very low storminess. From 1870, storminess downtrends to an historic low in about 1965. From 1965, we see a sharp increase to about 1992-1993 (the decade 1988-1998 was consistently stormier, similar to the 1880s) and then two decades of reducing storminess to the present. The most recent decade, 2006-2016, is right on the long-term average.
The antiquities of the Orkneys are not threatened in the present by any measure of “increased storminess”.
Any threat of increased storminess must refer to future climate states based on projections via climate models which are known to have little (if any) ability to project future climates on such a small geographical/regional scale.
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Bottom Line: The Orkneys’ Historical Sites are Not Threatened by Climate Change
- The Orkneys are beautiful and are the home to many important sites of historical interest. As with all ancient sites, they suffer the risks associated with intentionally exposing them to view, which also exposes them to a raft of dangers from weather, wind and rain, and from ‘too many’ interested visitors.
- Orkney archeological sites are not presently at risk from sea level rise. There has been almost no sea level rise at Lerwick, Shetlands (the closest nearby PSMSL tide gauge) over the last 50 years and where the long-term Sea Level Rise trend stands at a barely discernible 0.2mm/yr. There is no need to “Save Scotland’s Heritage From the Rising Seas” — the sea is not rising in the Orkneys.
- Orkney archeological sites are not currently threatened by the “increased storminess” — there has been no unusual storminess for the last twenty years. The Orkneys are adjacent to the North Sea, which is famous for storms, and experiences almost constant winds and frequent gales. Storminess was slightly elevated from 1988-1998. Sites on the shoreline within a few meters of normal high tides are naturally at risk from exceptionally strong storms, which have occurred throughout the islands’ history.
- The Orkneys and their archeological treasures have been and will continue to be at the mercy of North Sea winds, rains, and storms. If society wishes to preserve these treasures, sensible pragmatic efforts should be taken to protect those sites found on exposed shorelines.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
It was a surprise to me that a place like the Orkneys could have been such a hot spot of early human settlement. Its windy, foggy, remote with sandy rocky soil. Yet, there is the proof — thousands of archeological sites waiting to be fully researched and catalogued. Maybe as the work progresses, the reason that the Orkneys became desired real estate will be revealed. There is mention that some feel the Orkneys were a good deal warmer two or three thousand years ago.
I urge readers who are interested in such things to read the NY Times’ article and some of the links I have provided.
“Not Threatened by Climate Change:” is planned as a series, with the Galapagos Islands being next.
Address comments to “Kip…” if you have a question.
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