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Exposure of cultural resources to 21st-century climate change: Towards a risk management plan

December 22, 2021

Anthropogenic climate change during the 21st century presents a significant challenge to the protection of cultural resources (CRs) on federal lands that encompass ∼ 28% of the U.S. In particular, CRs on this land base may be adversely affected by a wide range of climate-change hazards, including damage by sea-level rise, enhanced deterioration by increasing temperature and precipitation, and destruction by more-frequent and severe wildfire. Most current measures to manage the impacts of hazards on CRs use vulnerability assessments, but because these require that all CRs be treated as having an equal chance of being affected by climate-change hazards (i.e., equal exposure) across large landscapes, the cost and resources required for such analyses are overwhelming to land management agencies. Projections of changes in many hazards, however, show that the probability of hazard occurrence will be unevenly distributed on the landscape. Incorporating this information into a risk assessment thus allows CR managers to prioritize their efforts on assessing impacts to CRs in those areas where the probability of the hazard is greatest, thus increasing efficiency. We provide several heuristic examples of implementing the first part of a CR risk assessment by using 21st-century projections of several hazards most likely to adversely affect CRs on nine National Forests (NFs) managed by the U.S. Forest Service in northern Idaho and Montana. Overlaying the projected distribution of hazards on these NFs with the distribution of CRs identifies CR exposure that, with information on their vulnerability, is required to determine risk. Additional policy and field studies will be needed to determine how to prioritize those CRs that are most at risk according to their significance as well as identify how impacts can be reduced and managed through adaptation planning and implementation. Adaptation will follow the iterative risk management process particularly by improving projection resolution. Finer scale, process-based modeling informed by the highest priority CRs would also provide a means to assess various adaptation options that might change the estimated risk and increase the odds of CRs being as little affected as possible.