Not Threatened By Climate Change: Orkney Islands

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


featured_imgWay 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.

Ring-of-BrodgarOrkney’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.”

“These threats, now familiar at world heritage sites around the globe, are being answered in Scotland by archaeologists, citizen-scientists, students, government agencies and academics.”

“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_OrkneysData provided by

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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Dave Fair
March 8, 2019 10:25 pm

“Its climate change. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

You have a problem with that? “Shut up, she explained.”

The debunking(s) will never see the light in the popular press.

Reply to  Dave Fair
March 9, 2019 4:28 am

Skara Brae is in a bay, where extensive coastal erosion has been taking place for centuries. There are now extensive sea defenses to protect the site.

Reply to  Kevin Marshall
March 9, 2019 6:56 am

Kevin ==> quite right, concrete sea walls have been built on the ocean side of the site. If one clicks on the larger view of image, you can just see a bit of the protecting wall just below the cows in the background, upper left corner.

Michael S. Kelly LS, BSA Ret.
Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 9, 2019 5:44 pm

The people who build the sea walls could really mess with future archaeologists by making the concrete with isotopes indicating that it had been poured 5,000 years ago. Then they’d say “Whoa, not only a lot of ancient people, but they foresaw future sea level rise due to climate change!”

If I were in charge, that’s what I’d do.

Reply to  Dave Fair
March 12, 2019 9:45 am

There is no SLR in areas “near” large ice sheets. Greenland has been the cause of SLF (sea level fall) for that area since circa 1750 (

Same with South East Alaska where Glacier Bay does the same thing (

March 8, 2019 10:30 pm

“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’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Orkney Islands, primarily because I wanted to see the two magnificent stone circles there, but also partook in some of the products of the three (?) distilleries up there, with Highland Park being the most northerly distillery on the planet (or was then).

…… and yes, the climate was much milder thousands of years ago (the Minoan Warm Period?). I have books on the Islands describing finding hazel tree seeds and remnants of other flora that could not survive there now. I’ll try to find the books I bought – plenty unpolluted climate gems in them as I recall.

Reply to  philincalifornia
March 8, 2019 10:57 pm

And even more fascinating and unobtainable are all those archaeological sites from a few thousand years earlier that are now covered by sediment on the seabed around the British Isles.

Reply to  JaneHM
March 9, 2019 7:01 am

JaneHM ==> Yes, that is so. However, as you probably know, it goes both ways — aren’t there some seaside villages and ports now find themselves far from the sea?

Ian Magness
Reply to  philincalifornia
March 9, 2019 12:06 am

Phil – you beat me to your comments about Orkney. In fact, whilst Orkney is particularly well populated with such sites, there are many archaeological sites of similar nature dotted around the northernmost shores of the British Isles, including in north western Ireland. Some are believed to have been active to times much later than the 2-3 thousand years ago mentioned in the article, unsurprisingly into the MWP. What they have in common is that they are in bleak, isolated areas well away from any present significant human habitations. Furthermore, they were agriculture based communities in exposed areas where soil saturation, storminess and cold and wet weather would make such agriculture all but impossible – and certainly uneconomic – today. Managing a few hardy varieties of sheep are all that seems possible now. So, what you can see is clear evidence of climate change – but not related to CO2!
Brilliant article, painstakingly researched Kip, thank you.

Crispin in Waterloo
Reply to  Ian Magness
March 9, 2019 5:07 am

There were some pottery shards recovered on the “mainland” in the far NW of the UK that were measured to establish the radius of the vessel. They also examined the contents by sampling the surface

It turns out the pot was about 120 litres in capacity and it was used for brewing beer. Age? 4500 years.

Dang. There were some serious brewers back in the day. So the Norse communities were already setting the pattern of life for millennia to come: huge quantities of booze to keep away the blues and the winter chill.

Reply to  Ian Magness
March 9, 2019 7:06 am

phil(now)inCalifornia and Ian ==> Those humans are funny creatures — and turn up in the oddest places. And one of the first thing they get up to is the making of alcoholic beverages!

I was born in Los Angeles, California, not a reasonable place for a megalopolis as it lacks adequate water. Nonetheless, there it is!

bit chilly
Reply to  Ian Magness
March 9, 2019 3:00 pm

+1.Always interested to see an article by Kip.Well written and informative articles like this keep me coming to WUWT.

Reply to  bit chilly
March 9, 2019 3:38 pm

bitchilly ==> What a nice thing to say, thank you. And I hope to keep up the pace — my target is one major essay a week.

Reply to  philincalifornia
March 9, 2019 10:08 am

As I understand it, the Picts were chased up north there by the Irish, who didn’t want them as neighbors, and by the Roman Army more than once. They left behind a lot of artifacts, including the settlements at the Orkneys and the Shetlands. They also built quite large brochs, some of which still have remains in place now. (I’m simplifying it!) Most of the large remains are inland, not in coastal areas which have had many centuries to erode the coastline.
I hope some of that stuff is still standing, if I ever get a chance to go there.

alastair gray
March 8, 2019 11:24 pm

A small comment Kip . You could have used the Wick tidal gauge Closer and showing 1.29 mm/yr

Mark - Helsinki
Reply to  alastair gray
March 9, 2019 1:11 am

and of course, sea level could not be rising at such different rates 1.29mm/yr 0.2mm/yr at two such geographically close locations, other facts, categorically, must, be responsible for the differences in SLR at those sites.

Reply to  Mark - Helsinki
March 9, 2019 7:20 am

Mark ==> NOAA specifically states in regards to these sea level graphs “The graphs give an indication of the differing rates of vertical land motion, given that the absolute global sea level rise is believed to be 1.7-1.8 millimeters/year. ”

Given that I don’t have any tide gauges with associated “same structure Continuously Operating GPS” stations — which would give us a good idea of Vertical Land Motion, we have to bumble along with the Relative Sea Level shown by tide gauges.

Reply to  alastair gray
March 9, 2019 7:15 am

alastair gray ==> Yes, I did look at Wick, but it seemed to be a little too “south and around the corner” — with Lerwick ,which seemed more likely to share a common sea level experience, also available.

But even if we looked at Wick, it is still far below the generally accepted (NOAA) 1.7/mm/year (8 inches per century) trend. Since 1965, Wick has experienced just 4 inches of Relative Sea Level Rise.

John V. Wright
March 8, 2019 11:37 pm

Kip, lovely article and beautifully illustrated, thank you. Just one small suggestion. You write “some Orkney has stubbed his toe on a protruding stone where recent rains”. Perhaps “some Orcadian has stubbed his toe on a protruding stone where recent rains”?

Reply to  John V. Wright
March 9, 2019 7:24 am

John ==> Thank you for that correction — I was aware that there was an odd name for the people of the Orkneys but the word had gotten away from me by the time I sat down to write — some words are particularly slippery.

Let it be know that the correct name for a native of the Orkney Islands is “Orcadian“.

Joel O'Bryan
March 9, 2019 12:02 am

Completely besides the point of the climate scam thingy… every bloody spot of land in Europe, from Orney to the Black Sea has some historical significance going back thousands of years. If we every fire pit and burial site we stumble upon a “historical preservation site”, where will the next generation(s) live?

I say put the plough under and bulldozer to most, it not all of them, and go on with life. We know it was a hard, brutish, and short life they lived. Let’s not glamorize it and wish for the “Good Old Ways”. It was a time of rampant diseases and early death. That is of course what the climate scammers want to return humanity to.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
March 9, 2019 7:27 am

Joel ==> One has to be pragmatic about these things, for sure. For the Orkneys, these sites are a saving grace — they encourage tourism, bring preservation grants, money spent on building museums — what’s not to like?

John Pickens
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
March 9, 2019 10:11 pm

That’s a bit harsh.
I’m decidedly against the abuse of environmental and historical preservation procedures to further NIMBY-ism. However that doesn’t mean “putting the plow” to historical sites just for the sake of proving a point.

James Bull
March 9, 2019 12:27 am

I visited the Orkneys in the mid 1970’s on holiday with my family (Dad and his diving colleagues were diving on the many wrecks in and around the Islands) we visited many of these sites with many being either on hill tops or the coast.
Just south along the coast from Skara Brae are some spectacular cliffs with seaweed growing at half the height of the cliffs.
When I returned to the Orkneys in the mid 1980’s the grass ant soil had been striped off the cliff tops by storms it was quite awe inspiring to see how nature had changed the landscape.

James Bull

James Bull
Reply to  James Bull
March 9, 2019 1:41 am

During my early visits we camped at an abandoned AA site left from WW 2 it was fascinating to explore and being right on the shore gave many more hours of interest, getting up early one morning I joined my parents on the shore enjoying the flat calm water with a view of the opposite shore visable apparently floating above the water the effect lasted for some time till the breeze started.

James Bull

Reply to  James Bull
March 9, 2019 7:32 am

James Bull ==> Thanks for sharing your personal experiences in the Orkneys. I have done a bit of scuba in the warm Caribbean waters…it makes me shiver just thinking of diving that far north.

The North Sea is no place for the timid — Bill Bryson relates stories of ancient storms in the Orkneys in one of his books.

michael hart
March 9, 2019 12:44 am

Glad to see a (first?) mention at WUWT for the University of Central Lancashire, and I hope they were not responsible for any inaccuracies reported. At least one person whom I know, love, and deeply respect, is an alumnus. 🙂

Reply to  michael hart
March 9, 2019 7:37 am

michael hart ==> Professor Downes was quoted expressing concern about a particular site — on Cata Sands. Her bleak outlook for the long-term survival of the site was fair — the site in in the inter-tidal Zone of Cata Sands — high tides cover it, low tides expose it. Not a good long term outlook.

I wish her well in digging out whatever the site has to tell us — before it is finally washed away by the next horrific North Sea storm.

Ben Vorlich
March 9, 2019 1:02 am

I visited Orkney in the early 1960s with my dad some of the most memorable experiences of my life. Coming back over the Pentland Firth on one occasional we experienced a one of proverbial storms. Very exciting.

There are a number of sites around nort west Scotland, for example Callanish which were completely buried in peat indicating a change to a wetter colder time sometime in the Bronze Age about 30p0 years ago.

Reply to  Ben Vorlich
March 9, 2019 7:52 am

Ben ==> Thanks for sharing — having lived on the sea in ships and boat for 1/2 of my adult life, I share your appreciation for a good storm — awe inspiring.

We have only begun on the scientific quest to understand the Earth’s climate — past, present and future.

March 9, 2019 1:05 am

Are tourists and archaeologists damaging priceless sites? Probably. I was going to use the example of Stonehenge but then I stumbled on this story.

It seems that a highway some distance away from the site is going to be buried in a tunnel so the traffic won’t somehow harm Stonehenge. The archaeologists have their shirts in a knot because they think a small diameter hole that was drilled, a mile away from Stonehenge, has somehow damaged something precious.

Are the archaeologists catastrophizing? It sure sounds like it.

Experts have a way of ignoring the greater context and focusing narrowly on their own ‘thing’ as the most important thing for all of mankind. We need a way to keep these idiots in check. There’s a danger that folks might be sucked in by their rantings.

Reply to  commieBob
March 9, 2019 2:13 am

‘Are the archaeologists catastrophizing? It sure sounds like it.’

Maybe, but from the documentaries on Discovery Channel, Smithsonian Channel, et. al., seem to show that the Stonehenge area was a hot bed of early religious significance such as with the recent discovery of a Woodhenge about 1 km away from Stonehenge. I think they are concerned that any disruption could destroy any undiscovered sites of archeological and historic importance. But one could say that in general about the British Isles where one could trip over an archeological site with practically every step.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Buckeyebob
March 9, 2019 6:31 am

Same with Egypt and similar places. Every time there is construction that requires digging, there’s another ancient tomb or bath house.

Reply to  Buckeyebob
March 9, 2019 7:56 am

Ben ==> Thanks for sharing — having lived on the sea in ships and boat for 1/2 of my adult life, I share your appreciation for a good storm — awe inspiring.

We have only begun on the scientific quest to understand the Earth’s climate — past, present and future.

Reply to  Buckeyebob
March 9, 2019 8:00 am

Bobs (commie and BuckEye) ==> Naturally, the archeologists see their work as more important than that of the Highway builders. Environmentalists see their concerns as more important than human welfare.

Pragmatism is the key — and for that we need open minds, critical thinking skills, minds with well-rounded educations.

Hiding the highway in a tunnel seemed like a good idea.

March 9, 2019 1:38 am

Nice informative article Kip. Thanks for the effort.

As always it is the ACTUAL sea level at any site which matters, not the “inverse barometer” , GAIA adjusted orbital spin from the satellite guys.

Reply to  Greg
March 9, 2019 8:07 am

Greg ==> Thank you. On a century-long scale, the accepted 8-12 inches seldom makes much difference. If the sea were just rising — no waves, no storms, no tides — it would almost never be a problem. But it is at the interface of systems that the problems arise — where the sea hits the land. When that “hitting” is literal, the sea always wins in the long run.

bit chilly
Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 9, 2019 3:24 pm

That is true Kip. Any article on sea levels always piques my interest.Particularly the North sea as rarely a week goes by i do not spend some time in and around in winter and fairly frequent in summer.
Various tidal phenomena i personally witness lead me to believe that sea level is a yet another climate metric that fails to pass the robustness test required in other branches of science.I have watched the peak spring tide level diminish significantly in the North sea over the last 15 years and can’t find a mention anywhere of potential effects anywhere in the climate literature.

It is quite obvious to me lunar effects are moving huge quantities of water between the ocean basins over various time scales and there are many possible effects of significance to the climate as a result. Peak spring height in the 90’s was just over 6.0 m on the Arbroath, Anstruther and old Leith tide gauges.The latest set of spring tides that hit the same 0.0m low mark as those in the 90’s (although i have witnessed some that went -0.01) only reached 5.70m peak amplitude,a full 30 cm (11.80 inches in old money) less than recent times.

This represents a lot of water that is no longer flooding in and out of the north sea every tide and must be doing so elsewhere.
As for the storms i find it interesting that the storminess chart doesn’t show the 1970’s as the stormiest period given it is the bottom of the cool phase of the AMO and cooler periods are purported to be stormier periods globally.Maybe down to wind direction ? Westerlies have the longest reach to build the biggest wave heights that potentially cause the most damage, though to be fair virtually every direction bar southerly has the potential for big waves up there.

Having spent some time boat fishing in the Shetlands it is something you are acutely aware of.A calm day up there is not what would be termed a calm day many other places, their commercial fisher folk are a hardy bunch that appear to enjoy riding the roller coaster that is the tide race in Culla Voe for fun.A sight to behold on a spring tide with wind over tide.

Reply to  bit chilly
March 9, 2019 3:44 pm

Chilly ==> Thanks for sharing your personal stories — a wild storm at sea is great to witness ….from a safe harbor.

rhoda klapp
March 9, 2019 2:04 am

I can’t let this past without posting this poem. It’s the view of a sailor who was there in WW2. Orkney is nice nowadays in mid-summer, when it doesn’t really get dark. I haven’t tried mid-winter when it doesn’t get light or warm..

Bloody Orkney

This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody roads are bloody bad,
The bloody folks are bloody mad,
They’d make the brightest bloody sad,
In bloody Orkney.

All bloody clouds, and bloody rains,
No bloody kerbs, no bloody drains,
The Council’s got no bloody brains,
In bloody Orkney.

Everything’s so bloody dear,
A bloody bob, for bloody beer,
And is it good? – no bloody fear,
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody ‘flicks’ are bloody old,
The bloody seats are bloody cold,
You can’t get in for bloody gold
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody dances make you smile,
The bloody band is bloody vile,
It only cramps your bloody style,
In bloody Orkney.

No bloody sport, no bloody games,
No bloody fun, the bloody dames
Won’t even give their bloody names
In bloody Orkney.

Best bloody place is bloody bed,
With bloody ice on bloody head,
You might as well be bloody dead,
In bloody Orkney

There’s nothing greets your bloody eye
But bloody sea and bloody sky,
‘Roll on demob!’ we bloody cry
In bloody Orkney.

Reply to  rhoda klapp
March 9, 2019 8:13 am

rhoda klapp ==> Thanks for the poem! I wonder if some long-ago Norseman, with the misfortune to be landed on the Orkneys by his battle-captain, would have written the same?

[Disclaimer: Rhoda supplies the poem expressing the opinions of its author — which are not necessarily those of the author of this essay or the management of WUWT. :-0 ]

March 9, 2019 2:11 am

Kip, with regard to the Orkneys being preferred real estate 5000 years ago, is there any evidence it is more so than northeast Scotland further south? As a kid growing up there, we visited a farm near Kildrummy Castle (50 km WNW of Aberdeen) which had stone houses of this type, built by people called “Picts”. Also, there are numerous stone circles for example at Aikey Brae (about 50 km N of Aberdeen). A farming population built these 4000 + years ago.

Reply to  Keith
March 9, 2019 4:18 am

Following the discovery of various buildings at the Ness of Brodgar in 2002, it is a theory is that Orkney was the center of Neolithic culture in Britain. The Ness of Brodgar is a strip of land between two lochs. At either end are stone circles.
For more details try Youtube “Ness of Brodgar Neil Oliver”

Reply to  Keith
March 9, 2019 8:17 am

Keith ==> The “preferred real estate” quip is my way of saying that there are a awful lot of signs of ancient habitation for such a rugged place — but I don’t know if the Orkneys were preferred to other localities in Scotland.

Maybe some reader can help us with a link to the density of populations over the millennia?

March 9, 2019 2:29 am

Interestingly, at the end of the 16th century, one of my forefathers, Willem Barentz, went looking for a passage to the east via the north. He must have read about this somewhere from ancient Norse writings. Sadly, he and crew died trying to find it. Hence, we still have the Barentz Sea, up there in the Arctic. So, there is strong anecdotal evidence that a thousand years ago, the arctic was largely ice free, or almost ice free, or just like it is now. Willem would not have risked his own life and that of his crew unless he was sure about that passage.
Isn’t it funny, how the world changes in 400 years….meaning we now don’t want that passage to the east via the north anymore – not even just to discover it – like Willem wanted to find it
….how dumb is that, actually?
So, anyway, not to worry when you see less ice in the arctic and it getting somewhat warmer.. We have been there, done all that.

Reply to  henryp
March 9, 2019 8:26 am

Henry ==> a lot of recent interest in the Northern Sea Route.

Patrick healy
March 9, 2019 2:35 am

Great account of our past Kip.
One other point which should be mentioned is that mainland Scotland is recovering from the last ice age and is consequently rising up.
Southern England is inversely sinking. Many Scots would not be too alarmed at this occurrence.
Me being Irish (having lived in Scotland for over 40 years) must remain neutral on the issue.

Reply to  Patrick healy
March 9, 2019 8:39 am

Patrick ==> I couldn’t find any easily accessible VLM data for Scotland — only a vague assessment that Scotland was not moving up much at present — some 0.6 mm/year UP.

March 9, 2019 4:00 am

I have visited Orkney a number of times on day trips, with guided coach tours.
Currently the islands are so windy there are very few trees. On the main island trees are so rare that there has been created a small woodland in a valley for school children to visit.
Yet the evidence shows that the area was thickly wooded 5000 years ago when the stone circles were built. It was people that removed the trees.
The earliest sites, such as at Skara Brae pre-date both the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge in Southern England. The discovery of a number of structures on the Ness of Brodgar in 2002 have lead people to believe that Orkney was the original center of Neolithic development that have left stone circles across Britain. The website is extremely interesting.
Temperature wise the climate is fairly mild. Sub-zero temperatures are rarer than on the Scottish mainland. But summers are cool as well. In Kirkwall the average high in the warmest month is 61 °F compared to 66 °F in Edinburgh and 74 °F in London. Add in near constant wind, with a chill from the sea, and it feels much colder.
However, the locals are very warm and welcoming.

On a visit in 1996 the tour guide pointed out a wind turbine, something quite novel at the time. It had to be switched off when wind gusts exceeded 100 mph, something that happened at least once a year.

March 9, 2019 5:35 am

They found any mammoth bones up there?

Mammoths were found almost worldwide, including South Carolina, where legislators have designated one species of the creature as the official state fossil.

Reply to  meiggs
March 9, 2019 8:42 am

meiggs ==> No mention of mammoths in the materials I have read…but there is still hope.

So is South Carolina going to name their football team The Mammoths?

bit chilly
Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 9, 2019 3:35 pm

A bit further South West than the Orkney’s but there has indeed been a Wooly Mammoth bone found in Scotland.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 9, 2019 6:56 pm

The Purdue University, Fort Wayne, team is the Mastodons…..

March 9, 2019 6:30 am

I visited Orkney in 2017, and saw the archaeological dig at Ness of Brodgar. This large complex may predate Skara Brae and is believed to have religious significance. The entire archipelago is just littered with prehistoric sites.

Then in January 2018 and again in January 2019 we visited the Shetland Islands, even more remote and further north. There are prehistoric settlements all over Shetland as well. In fact, an ancient village lies below the main runway at the airport. When the runway was built and the village discovered, it was thoroughly studied and then recovered, to lay the runway, which runs from one side of the island to the other. The main road north crosses the runway, with appropriate crossing gates, since there is nowhere else to put it. It is amazing that ancient peoples even found this place.

Reply to  starzmom
March 9, 2019 8:45 am

starzmom ==> The Orkneys and Shetlands are on the direct sea route from Norway/Sweden/Denmark to Iceland and Greenland so it does not surprise me that the seagoing Norsemen and Danes would “bump into” these islands.

Quite a story about the buried village under Shetland airport. Thanks.

Jeff Alberts
March 9, 2019 6:36 am

“It is amazing that ancient peoples even found this place.”

I’ll bet they were lamenting the lack of internet access, or the cost of getting Amazon packages delivered.

Tom Abbott
March 9, 2019 7:02 am

Very interesting article, Kip. Thanks.

Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 7:18 am

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 after millennium.

Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 7:22 am

Unfortunately, the text contains a some misinformation and unfounded claims about sea levels and climate. –>

Unfortunately, the text contains awsome misinformation and unfounded claims about sea levels and climate.

Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 7:36 am

The Orkney Islands are a treasure trove for archaeologists interested in Neolithic proto european and Celtic cultures and Norse-settlements.

Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 8:11 am

“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.”

Similar “threats to cultural heritage” “by sea level rise” have already come true – which indeed means reduction of the legacy but not complete annihilation.

Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 8:19 am

The black vertical bars are number of rainy days (unfortunately, with no scale provided.)

Anyway the light grey horizontals mark the abscissa in 2 inch steps.

Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 8:29 am

“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.” –>

“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, by generally more so in the warmer summer months when there is a lack of wind to clear the air.”


Wow – lots to learn from 1 post. Thanks Kip!

Reply to  Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 8:54 am

Johann ==> You are welcome — and thanks for the Google links for people interested in learning more about some of the items mentioned in the essay.

Johann Wundersamer
March 9, 2019 8:39 am

Perfect. +++ !

March 9, 2019 8:45 am

Couldn’t resist

March 9, 2019 10:00 am

Wait, what?

You mean to tell me that waves and storms can break rock? Seriously? What’s next, you’re going to tell me that fire can melt steel and that injecting dead/weak virus can protect me!


Smart Rock
March 9, 2019 10:14 am

Why are these archeological sites are buried in sand? It looks (as far as one can tell from photographs) like wind-blown sand. What the wind and the sea give you, they will also take away when they have a mind to.

Here’s a quote (it’s from Wiki but is historically accurate) about an area on the northeastern coast of the Scottish mainland, not that far away from Orkney, where I spent some happy days wandering along the shore and through the forest:

Formerly the area which is now the Culbin Forest was loose blowing sand dunes, called the Culbin Sands. The area had been fertile farmland, but was gradually covered in loose sand, particularly during a windstorm in 1694. The area remained largely dune desert for two centuries, sometimes referred to as “Scotland’s Sahara”. In the 20th century the Forestry Commission planted the area with forest

You should have heard the ranting in 1694 about something they called “climate change” and they blamed it all on the use of “fossil fuels” and the resulting “carbon emissions”.

As an aside, I think that archeologists should learn a bit more geology. They might understand just how ephemeral the surficial environment can be – without any human intervention or alleged human-caused
effects. The Holocene, which encompasses all of recorded history, is no more than the blink of an eye in geological terms. It’s a few thousand years of relatively benign climate between the last glaciation and the next.

PS – Orkney was glaciated during the last glacial period and is still undergoing isostatic rebound, which appears to be just keeping pace with sea level rise. No surprise there.

March 9, 2019 10:20 am

Smart Rock ==> I certainly agree — the Times’ story fails to emphasize how the ruins came to be buried in the first place. They do mention it though.

The wind and the sea act together in a wild, unpredictable pattern (given a long enough time period) to both build and tear down.

nw sage
Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 9, 2019 4:56 pm

That was my reaction too – just HOW did so much sand etc come to cover the ruins which are now being exposed? The natural forces must have been awesome compared to what we see now because of the elevation of the necessary deposits and their thickness. Lots of years of very nasty seas to bury those wall that deep. Good article Kip

March 9, 2019 11:23 am

Kip, without searching through my volumes of archaeology, I recall that sea levels several thousands of years ago were @ 400 feet lower than today, and that area’s climate was much more agreeable than today, so it would have attracted quite a few settlements.

Keep up the great work.

March 10, 2019 9:56 am

Very pleasing to see that many commenters have got it right: there is only one Orkney. Orkney is made up of many islands but there is still only one Orkney, not several.

Reply to  Alba
March 11, 2019 8:12 am

Alba ==> The matter is at least up for discussion: “Is ‘The Orkneys’ ever right?”

March 11, 2019 1:29 am

first of all… visit Orkney!

This is the most extraordinary landscape… the Neolithic stone circles and chambered tombs, remains of ‘brochs’ and other relics from right through history to the Napoleonic and first and Second World wars are like nowhere else in the world…

If you can visit during the summer when excavations are underway at the truly amazing Neolithic settlement ‘the Ness of Brodgar’ you will see something even more wonderful than Skara Brae…

Secondly – of course climate change is threatening Orkney. you only have to look at the increased pattern of severe storms around the UK in the last 2 decades…

Oh: while you are there, there is an excellent chance to visit a windfarm… right next to the RSPB bird reserve at Burgar Hill you can stand right under a turbine and check the sound level for yourself…

March 11, 2019 8:17 am

griff ==> No pattern of increasing storms in the NE Atlantic/North Sea: 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, which 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.” (See graphic in essay).

James McCorkindale
March 12, 2019 7:57 am

Rubbish middens (garbage to Americans) at Skara Brae contain remnants of sea bream bones eaten by the inhabitants 4000 – 5000 years ago. Sea bream are associated with much warmer seas than exist in Orkney today. The Northern limit of sea bream in the North Eastern Atlantic is about 1000 nautical miles south of the Orkneys. The seas must have been warmer at that time, despite other evidence of climate ‘rebound’ since the ice age.

James McCorkindale
Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 12, 2019 2:00 pm

Thanks Kip,
I appreciate that is a strong possibility but it is reassuring evidence in many ways.

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