Atmospheric and Climate Sciences, 2011, 1, 165-171
doi:10.4236/acs.2011.14018 Published Online October 2011 (
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ACS
The “Greening” of Natural Stone Buildings:
Quartz Sandstone Performance as a Secondary
Indicator of Climate Change in the British Isles?
Stephen McCabe*, Bernard Smith, Catherine Adamson, Donal Mullan, Daniel McAllister
School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology , Queens University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland
E-mail: *
Received July 24, 2011; revised August 28, 2011; accepted September 10, 2011
A number of recent studies have explored the impact of climate change on natural building stones. Because
of its sensitivity to change, sandstone can be seen as having a predictable, recognizable and sustained re-
sponse to changes in system inputs that control performancemost crucially for the UK and Ireland, how it
responds to an increased moisture input. There has been a widespread biological “greening” of sandstone
buildings in response to these periods of wetness during autumn, winter and spring months. Furthermore,
there is a wealth of literature detailing the response of sandstone in a variety of environments where sand-
stone response is representative of the environment in which it has been placed. This paper suggests that the
response of sandstone to trends towards wetter winter conditions is predictable to the extent that it may have
potential to be a secondary indicator of climatic changethat is, a system that alters in response to fluctua-
tions in environmental conditions in a sustained way. It is hoped that the paper may stimulate discussion as
to what other possible indicators of climatic change remain unacknowledged.
Keywords: Climate Change, Sandstone, Weathering, Greening
1. Introduction
The perpetual predicament of climate change scientists is
how to convince the publicand policy makersof the
validity of their predictions. To do this ideally requires
unambiguous evidence drawn from reliable climate-re-
lated indicators. The difficulty is, however, that such
secondary indicators involve varying degrees of ambigu-
ity relating to system responses that can be influenced by
a wide range of factors. This paper suggests that one pre-
viously unconsidered, relatively unambiguous, secondary
indicator of climatic change is seen in the “greening” of
our natural stone buildings (Figure 1). It is hoped that
the paper may stimulate discussion as to what other pos-
sible indicators of climatic change or environmental
change remain unacknowledged.
Several recent studies have sought to investigate how
sandstone structures respond to climate change (for ex-
ample, [1-5]). With changes in environment, the factors
that control the performance of sandstone in buildings
and monuments also change. These interrelationships are
especially apparent in the NW British Isles, where there
is a perceptible observed trend towards wetter conditions
especially in winter months. Observed data from two of
the longest and best quality rainfall records representing
the west (Lough Navar Forest) and the east (Helen’s Bay)
of NI help illustrate this trend (Figure 2). Based on analy-
sis of five-year moving averages of winter precipitation
from the early 1960s to near the end of the last decade,
mean increases in excess of 100 mm can be observed at
Lough Navar Forest (ca. 28%), with smaller but still con-
siderable increases of 45 mm (ca. 18%) at Helen’s Bay.
Data even show that summer rainfall has been increasing
in recent decades, with Lough Navar Forest and Helen’s
Bay displaying a 14% and 18% increase respectively.
Natural stone buildings in the NW British Isles appear to
have responded to this trend by biological “greening”
(Figure 1), principally from algal growth. We hypothe-
sise that this greening is likely to be a response to wetter
exposure conditions, possibly in combination at some
locations with reduced atmospheric sulphur dioxide and
an increase in atmospheric nitrogen from vehicular pol-
lution [3]. This paper proposes that the sensitivity of
quartz sandstone to environmental change is sufficiently
(a) (b) (c)
Figure 1. Algal “greening” of St Mark’s church in Belfast; (a) Cleaned stone buttress, May 1999; (b) the same buttress, Oc-
tober 2001; (c) North-facing façade, January 2011.
(a) (b)
(c) (d)
Figure 2. (a) Observed record of winter rainfall at Lough Navar in the west of NI (Co. Fermanagh), 1963-2009; (b) Observed
record of summer rainfall at Lough Navar in the west of NI (Co. Fermanagh), 1963-2009; (c) Observed record of winter
rainfall at Helen’s Bay in the east of NI (Co. Down), 1961-2005; (d) Observed record of summer rainfall at Helen’s Bay in the
east of NI (Co. Down), 1961-2005. Graphs are based on five-year moving averages. NB differences in Y-axis scales.
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ACS
predictable to permit its use as a secondary indicator of
climate change. Previously any such potential may have
been locally masked by mineral soiling and colour
change of stone in response to atmospheric pollution
the reduction in atmospheric pollution in many cities has
opened the way for natural stone to show its sensitivity
to wider climatic change. It should be noted that the re-
sponse to climate change in this region has been largely
biological in nature, but that sandstone is a particularly
suitable and sensitive host to the colonizing organisms
[6], because its mineral and pore characteristics are espe-
cially bioreceptive. Bioreceptivity describes “the aptitude
of a material to be colonized by one or more groups of
living organisms without necessarily undergoing any
biodeterioration. The word “colonize” is important since
it implies that there is an ecological relationship be-
tween the material and the colonizing organisms” [7, p.
216]. Primarily, texture or roughness gives pioneering
microorganisms or their spores cavities to settle in, mak-
ing it less likely for them to be removed from the surface
by wind or rain. A more connected porous substrate will
also retain more water, again enhancing microbial growth
and enabling a wider range of different organisms to in-
habit it. Sandstone ably fills criteria for bioreceptivity,
with its open-texture, pore connectivity and potential
mineral interactions with colonizers.
The “greening” of natural building stones has signify-
cant implications for biological, physical and chemical
decay processesthese are dealt with in detail in the
literature, most recently by [2] and [8]. In particular it is
proposed that algal biofilms can aid moisture retention
and further facilitate moisture and dissolved salt penetra-
tion to depth in building stones. Thus, whilst the outer
surface of stone may continue to experience frequent
wetting and drying associated with individual precipita-
tion events, the latter is less likely to be complete and the
interiors of building blocks may only experience wet-
ting/drying in response to seasonal cycling.
2. Indicators of Climatic and Environmental
[9,10] identify a variety of primary and secondary in-
dicators of climate change. Indicators are systems (or
organisms) that alter in response to fluctuations in envi-
ronmental conditions [10]. Primary indicators are those
directly related to the climate systemtrends in air tem-
peratures, precipitation, cloud cover and macro-scale
circulation indices. Secondary indicators “comprise phe-
nolmena that are likely to show responses to changes in
primary climatic components” [9, p. 26]. These include
shifts in agriculture, the behavior of butterflies, bats,
birds, fish stocks, tree growth and plant distribution as
well as human considerations like health, tourism and
energy consumption. Weathering studies have been con-
cerned for a long time with investigating how sand-
stone/environment systems respond to the primary cli-
matic components of temperature and moisture input,
and to how sensitive stone is to changes in those in-
putsthis makes sandstone a prime candidate for being
a secondary indicator of change.
[11] and subsequently [9], have set out a number of
criteria for climate change indicators. Thus, an indicator
Provide a representative picture of environmental
Show trends over time and be easily interpreted;
Be responsive to change;
Be comparable internationally;
Be national in scope or applicable to regional envi-
ronmental issues;
Have a reference against which comparisons can be  
Be well founded in technical and scientific terms;
Be based on international standards;
Be linked to forecasting and information models;
Be of high quality, well documented and updated
Be readily available at a reasonable cost.
3. The Suitability of Sandstone Performance
as an Indicator
Potentially, sandstone fulfils all of these criteria. However,
as [9] note, “selecting indicators which fulfill all these
criteria, presents great difficulties” and that we should
“select indicators that fit these criteria as far as possible”
[9, p. 4]. Thus, while some of the criteria are only ful-
filled potentially (depending on continued monitoring and
development of recordsongoing), any shortcomings at
this stage should not detract from that potential and the
fact that sandstone performance is particularly strong in
some of these areasi.e. providing a representative pic-
ture of environmental conditions, showing trends over
time, and being responsive to change.
Sandstone is widely used in the UK and Europe as a
building material (both historically and in new build),
with much research having been undertaken on under-
standing the response of sandstone to varied environ-
ments around the globe [12-14, 15-17]. Two of the pri-
mary indicators of climate change (noted above, [9])
temperature and moisture, are the key controls on the per-
formance of sandstone. Thus, if these change, we would
expect to see the change reflected in sandstone perform-
ance. [18], who investigated the response of three differ-
ent stone types across a range of environments, have
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ACS
stated, “all three stone materials show a fast response to
environmental impact, to pollution as well as to mete-
orological factors (humidity/rain, frost/thaw)” [18, p. 109]
(emphasis added). As sandstones are already found in
buildings and monuments they are readily available, and
any cost in using them as environmental indicators will
be in the simple ongoing monitoring of the stone. How-
ever, the need for the standardizing of condition assess-
ment (monitoring method) is crucial, and has been high-
lighted by [19] in their proposed staging system condi-
tion assessment scheme.
3.1. Sandstone as Representative of Environmental
Stone decay studies have long used stone exposure trials
in an attempt to understand how stone may perform in a
given environment. Stone exposure trials provide a sen-
sitive indication of the environment into which they are
placed [20-22], [18]many speaking of sandstone as a
sensor material.
For example, a 6-year study (1993-1999) [23] was car-
ried out using a relatively “inert” stone (in the sense that it
has a lack of secondary, easily weatherable, minerals)
Dunhouse Sandstoneto investigate surface change and
decay on sandstone in the polluted urban environment of
Belfast city centre. The response of the stone was rapid
surface change was evident after only 3 months of expo-
sure. After 6 years of exposure, a rich picture of the deposi-
tional environment was availableshowing deposits of fly
ash, gypsum, organic material and other adhering debris, as
well as dissolution features on the stone (representing a
relatively aggressive urban weathering environment).
While many studies have been largely concerned with
stone representativeness of environmental conditions in
urban areas, other studies have shown that the perform-
ance of sandstones over long periods of time in exposed
maritime and rural environments also show similar pat-
terns [17,24]“facades situated in exposed maritime
environments that allow periodic wetting and drying of
stonework show very similar patterns of decay, with re-
curring decay forms” [25, p. 171]. This strongly indi-
cates that, over long periods of time, sandstone responds
in a predictable and sustained way to environmental ex-
posure conditions.
3.2. Sandstone Responsiveness/Sensitivity to
ChangeStaggering the Exposure of Fresh
A common fallacy concerning stone is that it is immuta-
blenot subject to change, or that, if change does occur,
it is very slow [26]. Again, exposure trials in stone decay
studies have shown this assumption to be wrong. Surface
change can be very rapid in response to environment
(giving a representative picture, described above), and
can also reflect environmental change. The reduction in
local atmospheric pollution in recent times has paved the
way for the sandstone to reflect wider climatic influ-
encesespecially increased in winter wetness. More
recent exposure trials detailed by [1] demonstrate this
ability to identify climatic change. This work, showed
that exposure trials for sandstones in Belfast running
from April 1999 to March 2001 were markedly different
to those carried out in the early 1990s (described above,
[23]). Results showed that all of the sandstones had re-
sponded to exposure by “greening”. Algal and fungal
colonization were both evident, creating an adhesive
surface that was effective in binding other particulate
matter. As mentioned, these results after 3 years of ex-
posure stand in marked contrast to previous exposure
trails in Belfast in the early 1990s, in which biological
colonization was not present to the same extent [1]. Thus,
the exposure of fresh sandstone samples, staggered over
a period of time, is able to identify this kind of progres-
sive change.
[5] has re-enforced this temporal change in sandstone
performance with a spatial study comparing precipitation
and biological greening on sandstone monuments across
NI. They demonstrated that biological soiling on these
monuments largely followed a west/east precipitation gra-
dient, where the Atlantic signal coming from the west of
the country enhances precipitation [27]. Results show-ed
higher levels of biological soiling evident in the wetter
North-West of Northern Ireland where annual precipita-
tion is higher in response to the strong Atlantic signal as
compared to lower levels of biological soiling evident in
the more rain-sheltered South-East. Thus, the climatic
signal is picked up and displayed in the sandstone monu-
ments and their level of biological soilingFigure 3
shows a map of Northern Ireland with rainfall and monu-
ments exhibiting biological soiling overlaid. As part of the
overall study, Adamson exposed Blaxter Sandstone sam-
ples at sites around NIafter a period of only 13 months
(August 2009-November 2010), algae had grown on
north-facing samples on the west of NI (Derrygonnelly,
Co. Fermanagh), while north-facing samples in the east
(Belfast) showed less colonization [3,5]see Figures
4(a)-(b). This again demonstrates the potential of the
sandstone soiling to discriminate between environments
based on wetness trends.
4. Limitations and Ways Forward
The authors acknowledge that there are clear limitations
to the use of quartz building sandstone as an indicator of
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ACS
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ACS
Figure 3. Map of rainfall across NI, with monuments showing < 50% biological soiling on all façades as red dots. The black
line highlights the distinction between stone response in the wetter NW and drier SE of the country.
(a) (b)
Figure 4. (a) shows a relatively unsoiled Blaxter Sandstone sample exposed in Belfast (August 2009-December 2010), (b)
shows a Blaxter Sandstone sample exposed in the wet west of NI, Omagh over the same period. Both samples were north fac-
climatic change. However, we offer these ideas with the
intention of stimulating discussion on what other possi-
ble indicators have remained unrecognized. We stress
that all the results in this paper are observed, rather than
projectedi.e. we are working on the basis of changes
that have and are continuing to take place (both in terms
of climatic change and stone response).
[9, p. xi] discuss the “confounding effect of localized
factors”, i.e., do site-specific factors override the effects
of the general climate? This is certainly an issue that
needs some addressing, however, studies have shown that
West/North facing aspects tend to stay wet for longer
periods (i.e. trends do emerge that reflect the wider envi-
ronment). So, being aware of this and, for example, mak-
ing sure the elevation is exposed and not over-looked by
adjacent vegetation, as well as standardizing which aspect
of a structure is monitored can overcome these difficulties.
One problem with secondary indicators of climate change
in general noted by [9, p. 4] is that “studies are normally
short term, in a relatively local area and involve a small
number of species, thus missing out on the processes that
are taking place over many years”. The natural stone
database for Northern Ireland, undertaken by Queen’s
University Belfast and Consarc Design Group architects
(, addresses some of these is-
sues by covering all of NI and looking at over 800 sand-
stone buildings and monuments, giving an opportunity to
develop and make meaningful statements about long-
term change. The stone database breaks each structure
down into their 4 different aspects, each monitored sepa-
rately. The way forward, in terms of viewing sandstone
performance as a secondary indicator of climatic change,
is clearly for continued monitoring to be carried out, both
with the staggered exposure of fresh sandstone, and de-
velopment of the natural stone database to build a clearer
picture of stone response over time across NI and for
over 800 structures. Perhaps the validity of quartz build-
ing sandstone as a secondary indicator of climate change
could be more established by building a database of
stone response globally in different types of environ-
mentfrom arid to tropical. In this case, it would be
expected that the response of stone surface to, for exam-
ple, moisture supply would again reflect the environment
in which they are situated.
5. Acknowledgements
This work was funded by EPSRC grant EP/G01051X/1,
along with an EPSRC-funded Impact Award. Thanks go
to Gill Alexander (QUB cartography) for the preparation
of figures.
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