Historic Environment Scotland: Using satellite data to protect heritage from climate change

The user

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is the public body responsible to investigate, care for and promote Scotland’s historic environment.

Over 300 properties are in their direct care, including Edinburgh Castle, the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae, and Fort George, which together attract more than 5M visitors per year.

The challenge

One fifth of Scotland’s coastline is at risk of erosion and climate change has accelerated the process. Since the 1970s, the erosion rate has doubled and the proportion of retreating coast increased by 39%, threatening a significant number of prehistoric and historic sites on the Scottish coastline.


The satellite sollution

In 2012, HES, the Heritage Lottery Fund and The University of St. Andrews granted an aid to SCAPE (Scotland’s Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) to launch the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project (SCHARP).

Within SCHARP, over 1000 volunteers were mobilised to collect information about the condition of sites on the coast. Relying on the satellite navigation system built into their mobile devices and a mobile app, the volunteers updated existing data on 35% of Scotland’s coastline.

A “sites at risk” map, hosted on the SCHARP website, provides access to all data collected. This information is added to the National Record of the Historic Environment in Scotland (Canmore) and provided HES, local authorities and archaeologists with a tool for improved management of the vulnerable heritage on the coast.

In 2015, HES and SCAPE joined Dynamic Coast, a pan-government initiative funded by the Scottish Government and supported by Scottish National Heritage, aimed at building an evidence base of coastal change across all of Scotland’s erodible shores.

First, Dynamic Coast developed a geographic information system (GIS) map of coastal changes since the 19th century, primarily through analysis of existing maps and remote sensing imagery. In its second phase, the project aims to measure and model the full extent of the intertidal zone (the area where the land meets the sea) to understand which stretches of coast and historic assets are most at risk.

The project team is analysing the Sentinel-2 satellite’s full back catalogue of optical data. This is then compared with historical maps, modern and legacy aerial imagery and surveys of the vegetation edge to map, measure and model coastal changes.


The results

“The advantage of using satellite data is the level of semi-automation that is possible, meaning that a very high quality assessment can be made with a tiny fraction of the resources that would have been needed in the past”, says Mairi Davies, Climate Change Manager at HES.

The web-maps, summaries and reports are available on the web portal of the project and are used by HES to monitor the heritage sites and buildings under their care and to plan and prioritise interventions.

In 2019, to further explore the potential of satellite applications, HES launched a project in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Moniteye to trial the use of GNSS and of data from the Sentinel-1 satellite to monitor some of the cultural heritage sites in their care.