Reuse as a Process session at 2019 Minnesota State Historic Preservation Conference in St. Cloud, MN. I was actually aiming to get a photo of the clock on the wall. Just below it, Meghan Elliott's head can be seen. September 12, 2019.
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Climate Change and Historic Preservation

Reuse as a Process session at 2019 Minnesota State Historic Preservation Conference in St. Cloud, MN. I was actually aiming to get a photo of the clock on the wall. Just below it, Meghan Elliott's head can be seen. September 12, 2019.
Reuse as a Process session at 2019 Minnesota State Historic Preservation Conference in St. Cloud, MN. I was actually aiming to get a photo of the clock on the wall. Just below it, Meghan Elliott’s head can be seen. September 12, 2019.

During the recent 2019 State Historic Preservation Conference held in St. Cloud, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) opened up its revamping of the Minnesota Statewide Historic Preservation Plan 2020-2030 for ideas from stakeholders and the public. (You can add your thoughts and ideas through this online survey.)

There was a table with sticky notes and we were asked what we thought the most pressing concerns were in regards to historic preservation that should be addressed in the plan. We were to write our thoughts on the sticky notes and post them on the easel board provided.

Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

There weren’t very many sticky notes posted when I approached the table, but I did notice “climate change” was written on one. A couple of folks from our local Heritage Preservation Commission were at the table with me and we all saw “climate change” and noted that, frankly, this is the most pressing concern for every field and humanity itself. Wanting to give further weight to the already-posted “climate change” sticky note, we all wrote “climate change” on our own sticky notes and posted them.

As a member of the State Review Board, I had already been asked to provide ideas for the new Statewide Preservation Plan, which I did via email and phone survey. I’ve shared quite a number of ideas, including some wonky ones related to policy, but, really, climate change is my top priority. It has become so critical that it should automatically be added to any planning documents by government agencies and organizations.

Why? Because we are already feeling the effects of climate change and if we don’t do something NOW, they are going to get much worse. What flummoxes me is seeing municipal planning documents that don’t include it at all. Like, if planning officials ignore the problem, it’ll just go away.

Until it doesn’t and they are blind-sided by the tremendous costs.

You know who is paying attention to climate change? Insurance companies. They stand to lose a lot of money if they don’t stay on top of the effects of climate change, and insurance companies hate losing money.

My daughter works for a reinsurance company as a risk analyst who handles Florida hurricanes. Talk about being at the forefront of climate change! Using weather model data, they have to try to predict whether and where hurricanes will make landfall and estimate the cost of potential damages based on the size and strength of each hurricane. When Hurricane Dorian was active over Labor Day weekend, my daughter was on-call and monitoring it, so she could keep clients updated. Pretty amazing work. (Can you tell I’m immensely proud of her?)

She said that because of the rise in sea level due to climate change, residents who live on the coast in a particular Florida city are seeing their ocean-side drainage pipes back up with excess water. Because the pipes can no longer drain, a significant amount of water is backing up onto the shore. The city is looking at how to fix this and are facing major costs that haven’t been budgeted.

That’s the sort of thing that happens when municipalities or organizations ignore climate change in their plans. Or, perhaps they included climate change, but didn’t extrapolate the many possible effects by thinking like a historian or futurist. It’s all in the details.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Historic Preservation

Later during the Preservation Conference, I was approached by a SHPO staff member who said she wanted to talk to me later about climate change for the Statewide Plan. She wanted to know what effects we were seeing on a local level. As soon as I got home that evening, I jotted down a long list of thoughts related to how climate change will affect historic preservation, which I present here.

  • Climate change will lead to more water circulating in the atmosphere, which will lead to more mold in historic structures. (As Meghan Elliott of New History said during the conference session on “Reuse as a Process,” the first step in preserving structures is keeping the water and weather out.) Excess water will wreak all sorts of havoc on historic structures.
  • Because of excess moisture, people are going to find adaptive fixes for their historic structures, ones that may not be original or in keeping with original materials. For example, I’m seeing a lot of metal roofs replacing shingles on older homes in my area.
  • Excess water will lead to more erosion, something my museum is dealing with right now as we are located on a high bank of the Mississippi River between two dams and at the confluence of a creek. We are seeing severe erosion from the interplay of water from numerous sources – the river, run-off, massive rain storms, and possibly an underground spring along the shore. Our neighbors along the river are also experiencing significant erosion, which threatens the structures on all our properties. The fact that my museum holds tens of thousands of items related to county history means this erosion is a direct threat to the stability of the building and the history within. The other preservation challenge posed by erosion is the potential loss of archaeological sites.
  • We’re seeing more severe storms in general, with loads more rain falling during each storm event, which causes flooding, which threatens historic structures. But, we’re also getting more high winds, which buffets historic structures directly and can also blow down tree branches that can damage buildings. Along with winds, we’re seeing more lightning, which has taken out the power numerous times. We lost our phone and internet services for a couple of days at the museum this summer due to a lightning strike, which affected our ability to get our work done. A local bar in the downtown historic district was also struck by lightning this summer and burned to the ground, a total loss.
  • Climate change is causing a shift in the flora and fauna that grows in each area, which means we will have to deal with plants, animals, and insects we are unaccustomed to and which may cause damage our historic structures were not constructed to handle. There are now possums in central Minnesota, which I don’t remember being here when I was younger. (Not that I’m casting any aspersions against possums and their affect on historic preservation. This is merely one example of a species that has moved into the area with the warmer temps.) We are also now in a Zone 3 growing area, a change from a decade ago.
  • Climate change will lead to the massive migration of people as they move from places that become less hospitable. This will stress the historic structures in locations that become overwhelmed with larger populations (need more housing, businesses, infrastructure, etc., tempting to tear down old to make space for new and bigger), but it will also cause historic structures to be abandoned, meaning they will no longer be maintained and will fall into ruin.
  • People are being encouraged to plant trees and pollinator patches to help with climate change and the loss of bees. This will necessitate the changing of local ordinances, which could impact historic preservation (either positively or negatively).
  • Money spent by communities to mitigate climate change effects will not be available for historic preservation efforts.
  • A potential benefit of climate change is that we will be paying more attention to trees and how they act as carbon sinks. Historic buildings made of wood, so long as they aren’t rotting, continue to hold carbon within the intact wood. This is a great argument for NOT demolishing old buildings and throwing the wood into a landfill or burning it.
  • As water levels rise everywhere from global warming, low spots that have been filled in for use will likely act as channels for water. For example, here in Little Falls, MN, there used to be a sizeable ravine that ran through town. Most of this has been infilled with soil and buildings, but water still seeps into basements in the ravine. That will likely increase. The 1972 flood had water heading to town along this old ravine route, which is likely to happen again.
  • If legislators in the federal government ever get around to accepting climate change and doing something about it, those federal level adaptations and policies (whether related to historic preservation or other areas) will affect Minnesota. We need to be ready to adapt to these changes. Or, if the federal government refuses to act, we have to put in place our own policies and adaptations related to climate change and historic preservation.
  • We need to examine what is happening with agriculture world-wide. What will happen to historic farmsteads here in Minnesota if/when agriculture adjusts due to climate change?

Now over to you. What local effects are you seeing related to climate change and how are these changes affecting buildings and structures? How are these effects changing people’s behavior?

This is an activity best done in small groups because you can bounce thoughts off of each other. My husband helped me compile my list. Please share your observations in the comments.

And remember to take the survey related to the new Statewide Preservation Plan, which will cover all aspects of historic preservation in Minnesota. This is a great way you can be civically engaged.