Health of the Ocean
Climate Change & Britain's Coastline
by Patrick Barkham
As fierce winter storms destroy landmarks & put communities at risk, Britain's coast is changing with its climate.
Before the coast became our national park and playground, we once feared the sea. It was where "beauty, horror and immensity united", as the Romantics might put it. This phrase sprang to mind watching the church tower of Porthleven in Cornwall [above] cowering behind terrifying blasts of spray this winter, and seeing a section of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's South Devon railway, the engineering marvel that snakes along the south coast, reduced to something like a rope bridge at Dawlish.
Those whose homes have been wrecked by the storms feel a real sense of loss, but the destruction of much-loved pieces of our coast – from the rock arch at Porthcothan Bay, Cornwall, to the stack on the south of Portland, Dorset – is a small trauma for millions. When I visited my local beach at Wells-next-the-sea in Norfolk after the storm surge in December, I was stunned, not by the smashed-up beach huts, but by the sand dune that had disappeared overnight. There was a void on the horizon and it filled me with desolation. I'd played on that dune as a boy; I'd proposed there. We struggle to accept a new landscape forged by forces utterly beyond our control.
Denial is a natural human reaction
It is certainly writ large in the UK government's response to this winter's water torture. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged £100m for repairs and maintenance of our battered coastline and the stricken Somerset Levels. Local Government minister Eric Pickles added £30m, while criticizing Lord Smith, chair of the Environment Agency, for suggesting we would have to choose between "front rooms or farmland". Some political interventions are as surreal as the storm damage. "We have got to force the sea back and keep it out," cried one Tory backbencher, "not retreat from it like we have been for years."
The British Isles are more edge than middle
We are never more than 75 miles from the sea. It protected us from invasion, it gave us an empire and then it became fun. Unlike those flood gurus, the Dutch, whose nation depends on protecting just 451kms of coast, the UK has an indefensible 17,381km (far more than Brazil or India). Despite this, we have fortified it ferociously: 45.6% of England's coast is buttressed with sea walls, groins or artificial beaches, compared with just 7.6% of Ireland. Most erosion is on a geological timescale (the 10,000-year-old east coast is regarded as recent, and is still adjusting to current sea levels) but scientists believe it is likely to worsen. The IPCC last year increased its projections for sea level rise. Some climate scientists (conservatively) predict a global rise of up to 1.2 metres by 2100. Nearly a million homes in England and Wales could be at significant risk of tidal flooding by the 2080s.
Over the past year, I've had the lovely task of visiting our uniquely varied coastline to research a book about the bits owned by the National Trust. Thanks to its hugely successful Neptune campaign to save the coast from development (which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year), the Trust now owns 742 miles of English, Welsh and Northern Irish coast. This is a glorious public park by the sea – and an enormous headache for the Trust. The government's approach is clear: patch up and protect, or "hold the line" in the jargon of the shoreline management plans in place around our island. But hard defences will never stop erosion.
There is a frightening example of this at Orford Ness, a sinuous shingle spit in Suffolk that was a sinister cold war military site until it was turned into a nature reserve by the Trust. This long peninsula is changing alarmingly quickly. When I stayed there last spring, its lighthouse cast its beam out to sea. Now it is dark and decommissioned because it is about to topple into the water. The sea is threatening to turn the Ness into an island by destroying its tenuous connection with the land – a shingle bank just to the south of Aldeburgh. Here, exactly where decaying sea defences stop, spring storms almost punched through in 2013. Artificially strengthening one piece of coast weakens another. The Environment Agency repaired this breach with shingle last year, but the December storm surge pulled the ridge apart again. Using a bulldozer to create a shingle ridge is not as effective as a naturally formed bank, because it lacks the fine sand that becomes impermeable cement within a natural ridge. Undaunted, the agency repaired it again in January. When I called Grant Lohoar, who has managed the Ness for 21 years, he wasn't sure if he was on an island or not, because the latest storm had washed away the track to the breached area. "It's going to be a seminal moment in a lot of ways," says Lohoar of the winter storms. "It will be for Orford Ness, and for the Norfolk coast and the south-west. Everywhere is getting it, and there isn't going to be money to do everything."
The Somerset Levels are the source of most immediate concern and, historically, investment in river flood alleviation has dwarfed the funds for coastal protection. The ultimate decision on the future of Orford Ness rests with the Environment Agency. Local people living behind the Ness fear they would be inundated if it became an island, and the official policy is to repair the shingle bank for the next 25 years unless it becomes unsustainable. But who defines sustainability?
"Are we just going to be applying more sticking plasters on things that will pull off again and again?" asks Phil Dyke, the National Trust's coast and marine adviser. "Or are we going to take a proper look at vulnerable places and think about rollback, adaptation and realignment, and allow the undeveloped parts of the coast to function more naturally?"
The Trust once built hard sea defences, but over the past decade it has embraced a radical programme of adapting to coastal change, in consultation with local people. "We think sea defences are permanent structures, but they are not. Even the most ardent coastal defence engineer will say a structure has a lifespan of 50 years," says Dyke. Scientific studies show how hard defences are linked to a dramatic lowering of beaches. Sand dunes will naturally roll landwards and reform unless they are constrained by defences, which cause them to rapidly erode. So do salt marshes, which are brilliant at dissipating wave energy. Once sand or shingle is washed away, it is usually gone for good. Managed realignment will result in increased local erosion, but marine scientists say erosion may benefit other sections of the coast, reducing erosion or even enhancing accretion elsewhere.
It's happening now, not decades from now
Governments and their committees may excel at crisis management, but politicians are hopeless at taking wise decisions over geological time, even when natural erosion is quickened by climate change. All around our coast, scenarios drawn up for 2044 have materialised this winter. "Everybody thought this would hit us in 20 or 30 years time, but it's come now," says Lohoar
Our coast is changing, and it will change us. Even if we don't lose a home, our childhood idylls may never look the same again. Phil Dyke predicts that higher seas and a stormier climate may ultimately strip the sand from many much-loved Cornish coves and turn them, permanently, to stone. Like Icarus with the sun, so it is with us and the sea: we cannot resist living too close, craving its fun and solace from cradle to grave, despite its destructive majesty.
◊ Patrick Barkham writes on natural history forThe Guardian. The unabridged
article can be read here. Publ. here 8.2.2014