A Perspective on The Impacts of Extreme Weather and Climate Change on Historic/ Heritage Preservation (Part 2)

Extreme weather and climate change and its impacts on large historic and heritage sites part 2.

Published on:

March 29, 2022

A Perspective on The Impacts of Extreme Weather and Climate Change on Historic/ Heritage Preservation (Part 2)


This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the impacts of extreme weather and climate change on historic/ heritage preservation.


I worked in academia for my first 11 years as a professional weather and climate scientist. During this period, I held professional positions in Alaska, Colorado and Louisiana, conducting field work, writing science articles and engaging with the public about topics related to extreme weather and disaster science.

Installed weather stations in rural villages of western Alaska.
Ned Rozell and I installed weather stations in rural villages of western Alaska in September, 2005. He took this picture of me on the roof of a large school in Brevig Mission, Alaska, where we installed a weather station. Photo: Ned Rozell


After completing my doctorate at Louisiana State University, my career “zig-zagged” a bit, as I tried a stint in a new field- historic preservation. This opportunity enabled me to organize an international coastal resiliency conference in Galveston, Texas, as I served as the Director for the Center for Coastal Heritage and Resiliency at Galveston Historical Foundation.

Galveston was an ideal laboratory for this new adventure, as the city has a rich history of overcoming hardships from enduring nearly two centuries of hurricanes, pandemics, fires and a Civil War battle. A surprisingly large stock of Victorian-era architecture still exists there today, despite the formidable list of previous disasters.

While working in historic preservation challenged me with a new learning curve, I benefitted greatly from collaborating with a diverse set of professionals, in fields such as architecture, urban planning and engineering. I also learned much about historic preservationists, or people who hold a day job with a different title, but sit on committees or boards for historic preservation commissions. Regardless of their title, I found professionals and volunteers in this field to have a few common characteristics.

The Ursaline Academy in Galveston, Texas, barely survived the 1900 Storm, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
The Ursaline Academy in Galveston, Texas, barely survived the 1900 Storm, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. More than 1500 lives were saved as people took refuge in the chapel during the storm. Galveston has a rich history of resilience from extreme weather and disasters. Photo: Rosenberg Library.

My first observation was that historic preservationists usually have a passion for their community. They are typically well-connected to organizations that promote not only historic preservation, but performing and visual arts, music, and diverse community events. Obviously, they have a deep appreciation for history in many forms, including topics related to architecture and the built environment, as well as immigration, demographics and population change in their community.

I also noticed that historic preservationists have a keen eye for detail. They pay attention to every aspect of a building’s design, from the roofing and siding to the door frames and windowpanes. As homes and businesses are restored in historic areas, preservationists provide guidelines to ensure that restoration practices adhere to the original design and materials, guaranteeing that the community retains its historic appeal.

These perspectives serve well for keeping things as they were in historic communities.


Yet, as historic communities face substantial changes from climate and the environment, present and future conditions do not match the past. Warmer temperatures, heavier downpours, rising seas, and rapidly intensifying hurricanes are just some of the noticeable climate changes that are impacting these communities. Add to this mix natural and built environmental changes, like subsiding coastal land and the widespread development of impervious surfaces, like parking lots, that increase rainfall runoff, and we see numerous changes impacting historic communities.

This dialogue brings us to a juxtaposition. How can we reconcile the need to keep historic communities from changing, while at the same time successfully adapt for present and future changes to climate and the environment? This topic is a familiar theme addressed by professionals that work at the boundary of climate science and historic preservation.

The Keeping History Above Water conference series has brought together historic and cultural preservation professionals to discuss how to preserve history in the context of a changing climate.
The Keeping History Above Water conference series has brought together historic and cultural preservation professionals to discuss how to preserve history in the context of a changing climate. Photo: https://historyabovewater.org/climate-heritage-coalition-enters-its-second-year/.


Several conference and workshop series’ have organized for professionals to dialogue at the interface of climate change and historic preservation. The most well known is Keeping History Above Water (https://historyabovewater.org/), which has hosted conferences in Annapolis, Maryland, Charleston, South Carolina, Newport, Rhode Island and St. Augustine, Florida. Professionals at this series have continued to dialogue about topics that were addressed at Living on the Edge, a conference series hosted by Galveston Historical Foundation, from 2014-2016.

The optimal path forward will likely combine historic guidelines with some common-sense flexibility, to retain the historic nature of buildings, while enabling them to adapt to extreme conditions. Lisa Craig, Principal Consultant with The Craig Group Partners, has found success in partnering with communities to document this process by including historic and cultural resources as part of their local Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP). She finds this effective because every jurisdiction should have such a plan, so it’s a good check point to make sure that the community is including historic preservation in the hazard mitigation dialogue.

The first step in this process is often assessing all potential hazards that could impact a community. Although hazard assessment may seem obvious (Miami should list hurricanes), communities should remember that rare hazards often have the most severe impact. Consider the tremendous impacts of the ice storm and freeze that struck Texas in February, 2021, followed by the exceptional heat wave that gripped the Pacific Northwest the following summer. Cold weather in warm climates and hot weather in cool climates blindsided many people, leading to many weather-related deaths and financial losses.


now and ice extended to the subtropical Gulf Coast during the Texas Freeze of February, 2021.
Snow and ice extended to the subtropical Gulf Coast during the Texas Freeze of February, 2021. This photo from Galveston shows a motorist driving on a sleet-covered roadway in front of a palm tree on February 15, 2021. Photo: Hal Needham.

In addition to extreme temperatures, other hazards that communities should consider include severe weather/ tornadoes, strong wind, floods, snowstorms, ice storms, drought, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanoes and the three hurricane hazards- strong wind, heavy rain and storm surge. Communities will form a more comprehensive hazard history by looking back at anecdotal and scientific records to ensure that disasters from earlier times are included the list. For example, many people in coastal Georgia and southern South Carolina would be surprised to find their home would have flooded from hurricane storm surge multiple times in the 1880s and 1890s, because storm surge inundation has been relatively tranquil in this region over the past 120 years.

Once hazards are identified, local conversations should address the highest risks found within the built environment, and then address tactful ways that buildings could be made more resilient. Such changes should be historically appropriate and require as little visible change to buildings as possible.


Within the context of severe drought, heatwaves and periods of strong winds, California has observed 14 of its 20 biggest fires on record during the past decade (Alexander 2021). The Dixie Fire spread rapidly under perfect fire conditions in July 2021, becoming only the second fire in state history to approach 1 million acres of forest burned (Alexander 2021).

While such blazes threaten forested areas and massive tracts of natural habitat, they also obliterate historic buildings that were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the Dixie Fire hit Greenville, California, particularly hard, burning 75 percent of the town’s buildings, many of which were built during the Gold Rush era (Albeck-Ripka and Correal 2021). 

now and ice extended to the subtropical Gulf Coast during the Texas Freeze of February, 2021.
Flames and smoke fill this picture of a raging forest fire, burning both trees and underbrush. Photo by Noah Berger, Creative Commons License. Link: https://theacademyadvocate.com/staff_name/noah-berger-https-www-flickr-com-photos-jeff_head-20799665403-jeff-head-flickr-public-domain/.

As severe fire seasons have increasing impact, dialogue is also increasing about adaptations that reduce the impact of fires on the built environment. Such dialogue includes ideas about adaptive building materials that retain a historic look, but are more fire resistant. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have provided leadership on this topic for considerable time, producing literature on these principles even before the last decade of hyperactive fire seasons.

The U.S. Forest Service (2007) published Alternative Roofing Materials: A Guide for Historic Structure as a manual to provide guidance on alternative roofing materials to replace cedar shakes and shingles. Although the document is focused on buildings within National Forests, the information is relevant to fire-prone buildings in other rural settings and towns. Alternatives include shingles that are made from concrete tile, metal, clay, stone, as well as engineered and composition shingles.

Some of these alternative materials are constructed to imitate original materials in appearance, so they retain the look of historic authenticity. This perspective is seen in the U.S. Forest Service publication through the statement, “Now metals also are made to mimic cedar shakes and shingles.” (Author 2007, Page 8).

‍Workers installing fire retardant wood shingles on a roof in a fire-prone area.
Workers installing fire retardant wood shingles on a roof in a fire-prone area. Such materials reduce the risk of fire damage to the building, while retaining a historic look. Image: US Forest Service (2007), Figure 3, Page 5. 


However, when Federal funding is involved in projects, we cannot simply make adaptations that we consider “common sense” to protect or preserve a building. In accordance with the National Historical Protection Act, amended in 1980, such projects must undergo a Federal agency review, under the guidelines of Section 106.

This process evaluates if a project will have an adverse effect on the resource or general setting. Such adverse effects include adaptations that block viewsheds or change the perspective of a street-scape. As much as possible, adverse effects should be minimized or removed. While it may not be possible to change the viewshed behind a flood wall, for example, false siding or vegetation may be installed under a building that is elevated substantially.

Evaluating such adaptations includes considering the type of materials used in the original building, as well as the adaptations. The National Park Service desires practitioners to be sensitive, or “sympathetic” to the type of materials used. 

Such perspectives fall under Secretary of Interior standards 9 and 10, which relate to building adaptations that involve addition, changes and replacement of materials. We may see changes to these standards in the future, as some practitioners expect the National Park Service to issue updated guidelines for adapting buildings to fire-prone areas. Such guidelines have recently been updated for flood proofing in a manual that was published earlier this year (Eggleston et al. 2021).

While guidelines on preserving original materials can help maintain the integrity of a building’s design, professionals within the field of historic preservation will need to balance the purity of preservation with flexibility to ensure that most historic buildings will survive. Lisa Craig put this into perspective by stating, “The end goals should be ensuring that the resource remains in service, and you may jeopardize the resource if you don’t allow for some flexibility.”

Considering historic preservation on a global scale, historic preservation consultant Shantia Anderheggen commented that other cultures allow for flexibility in preservation, because historic people adapted the built environment over many centuries. She noted, “When you go to Europe and look at the windows of historic buildings, you often see modifications and adaptations that were implemented over many generations.” She commented that we would still consider such buildings to be historic, although the materials we see today may not be the original materials from the first construction.


While adapting the built environment to climate and environmental changes may minimize the impacts of climate change in many locations, some places will face such drastic changes that they may have to consider retreat. This is particularly true in places that are observing rapid sea-level rise.

However, this topic is often missing from the dialogues that take place at historic preservation conferences and workshops. Preservationists and other practitioners focused on saving historic resources may feel like retreating is admitting defeat and giving up.

Anderheggen reflected on this as she discussed the future of historic coastal cities. She contrasted our Western cultural approach towards historic preservation with the perspective of Native Americans, reflecting, “They lived less permanently on the land. We think the land is permanent and we think we own it.” She added, “People don’t understand they aren’t going to stop the water,” in reference to the impacts of sea level rise on coastal communities.

Several GeoTrek podcasts provide context and hope on this topic by considering the Native American perspective. Ned Rozell reflected on the ability of Native Alaskans to relocate an entire village, while retaining their community, in Minto, Alaska. Jennifer Tisthammer found hope in the example of Florida’s First People, who have likely already retreated inland in response to previous rapid sea level rise in South Florida. 

These perspectives contrast the mainstream Western view of individual property rights that most Americans have, which comes at odds with the physical reality playing out along the coastline, as rising sea levels accelerate.  Anderheggen predicts that we will not be able to save everything moving forward, and communities will have to make hard decisions about what to save.

This concept of “selective saving” has become a reality in the Florida Keys perhaps more than anywhere else in the U.S. The Keys teach us an important lesson, as dry road access becomes the decisive matter to determine resource allocation to save a place…or at least postpone inundation. Many of these decisions will come down to weighing the cost of raising roads against the local benefit, as described by Rhonda Haag, Monroe County’s Sustainability Director, in this 2019 New York Times article. (LINK: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/04/climate/florida-keys-climate-change.html)


Coastal flooding in Key West, Florida, during Hurricane Wilma in October, 2005.
Coastal flooding in Key West, Florida, during Hurricane Wilma in October, 2005. Source: Florida Keys Public Library. Creative Commons License. Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/keyslibraries/2845643237/.


Coastal residents may find some hope and empowerment through the process of coastal retreat by taking action to document their history as effectively as possible through a variety of methods, such as moving buildings and artifacts, taking photographs and videos, as well as developing multi-media oral histories to honor a place and document local heritage. Such work is multi-disciplinary and often international, enabling practitioners to learn from professionals in other disciplines that face the similar problem of disappearing places.

Leslee Keys, Principal at Keys and Associates LLC, reflected on the encouragement provided when The International Leadership Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, brought a team of Iraqi museum directors to St Augustine, Florida, in 2015, to discuss how to communicate history to future generations when no physical site remains on the ground. This trip came in response to the loss of world heritage sites that were destroyed during the Arab Spring cultural revolution in the Middle East. 

The International Leadership Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, during a 2015 program visit of Iraqi museum directors to the U.S. Photo provided by Leslee Keys.
Photograph from The International Leadership Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, during a 2015 program visit of Iraqi museum directors to the U.S. Photo provided by Leslee Keys.

Keys, who relocated to the Florida Keys for four years to help preservation efforts following Hurricane Andrew (1992) (she asserts the Keys were not named after her), provides some suggestions for communities interested to document their cultural history when threatened by extreme weather and increasing disasters. Her advice includes the following five suggestions:

  1. Do it now
  2. Appreciate historic resources
  3. Be creative and think outside the box
  4. Work through partnerships
  5. Consider insurance companies, who are now taking notice of increased losses

These suggestions remind me of the wisdom passed down through generations about preserving family histories before loved ones are lost. I’ve seen several families document the old-time stories of grandma and granddad, while they’re still here to tell them. We never know how long we have to preserve stories, and taking the initiative to be proactive and document history gives us some sense of control and ownership, along with the knowledge that we’ve done what we can do.


This two-part series on extreme weather, climate change and historic preservation began with my observations from riding out a hurricane at a Mayan archaeological site on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. That experience propelled me to consider the broader topic about the impacts of climate change and extreme weather on historical and cultural resources.

As I spoke to experts in the field of historic preservation, I was encouraged to learn that numerous people, with extensive experience and hearts in the right place, are working on this problem. Professional conference series’, like Keeping History Above Water, have provided a platform for diverse experts to meet and discuss topics that require the insights of architects, engineers, historic preservationists and climate scientists.

I also have new-found hope for the Mayan archaeological sites that I saw near Tulum, Mexico, the night of Hurricane Grace. I am encouraged that Mexico has invested so many resources to preserve these resources and educate a large international population that visits the ruins every year. I also find hope that the Mayans located many of their most sacred sites high on the cliffs of Tulum, far above the waves and water of the Caribbean Sea.

Did they make such choices to save their craftsmanship from future floods or to be a little closer to their god of the sun and god of the wind? Although we may not know the answer to that question, their site selection may help preserve these artifacts for generations to come.


Albeck-Ripka, L., and A. Correal, 2021: ‘We Lost Everything’: Residents are left in shock by the Dixie Fire’s destruction. The New York Times, Aug 6, 2021, updated Aug 9, 2021. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/08/06/us/climate-change.

Alexander, K., 2021: Why California’s Dixie Fire Got So Big – And What That Means For Future Blazes. San Francisco Chronicle, Sep 30, 2021, updated Oct 1, 2021. Link: https://www.sfchronicle.com/projects/2021/maps-dixie-fire-1-million-acres/.

Eggleston, J., J. Parker, and J. Wellock, 2021: The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines on Flood Adaptation for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Technical Preservation Services, Washington, D.C. 142 pp. Link: https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1739/upload/flood-adaptation-guidelines-2021.pdf

U.S. Forest Service, 2007: Alternative Roofing Materials: A Guide for Historic Structures. National Technology and Development Program. 2300- Recreation Management 0723 1812- SDTDC. Link: https://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/pdf/07231812.pdf.

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