by Phil Dyke, April 2014
Almost a decade ago the National Trust investigated how our coastline was likely to change over the next 100 years. Out of this research came the seminal Shifting Shores report (2005), which held one clear message — as a nation we can no longer build our way out of trouble on the coast. Fast-forward to this past winter and a succession of violent storms and extreme tides saw the erosion and flooding we thought could happen over the next 5 to 15 years occurring overnight. Increasingly, ‘defence’ as the only response looks implausible. Instead we must adapt and take the longer view.
Today the Trust cares for more than 742 miles of coastline, almost a tenth of the total in England, Wales and Northern Ireland — from sand dunes and saltmarshes to villages and harbours. And through our Shifting Shores work we are already putting into practice adaptive approaches to management.
There will be places where we continue to maintain sea defences. But we’re clear that we should make use of these structures to buy time to develop more long-term and sustainable approaches to managing our future coast based on adaptation.
By recreating a naturally functioning shoreline we free ourselves from the ‘sea defence cycle’ of construct, fail and reconstruct. This must surely be more cost effective in the long run and more desirable in terms of maintaining the coast’s natural beauty. It does mean making some tough choices, but we can’t just store up the problems for future generations to deal with.
The Trust is often on the frontline of change affecting the natural environment. With climate change, sea level rise and increasing frequency of extreme weather, this rapid change is a vivid demonstration of the shape of things to come. In all of this partnerships are vital, and we are already working with communities and organisations to adapt to the change.
The winter storms have put us on fast-forward — decisions and changes we thought we had a decade or more to make now have to be made almost overnight.
Dramatic storms and constant change are inherent features of where land meets the sea, and the forces of nature are part of the beauty and appeal of our coast. We want to work with nature rather than against it, and embrace adaption rather than relying solely on defence. .
Reliance on defence as the only strategy looks less plausible in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change. We need to have policies to support adaptation. Adaptation is all about long-term planning and accepting that our coast has always, and will always, change. The challenge for the twenty-first century is that process of change is accelerating as sea levels rise four times faster than they did in the previous one hundred years.
The impact of the winter storms on National Trust coastal places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been a bit of a wake-up call in terms of the speed of change. We’ve had to fast-forward some of our decision-making as changes that we thought we had a decade to plan for have happened pretty much over-night.
At Birling Gap in Sussex this stretch of chalk cliff has seen erosion that would normally take over seven years’ happening in just a few months. Part of the footpath down to one of the best beaches in the world at Rhossili on Gower in south Wales has been washed away. And strong winds have left some of the 270 beach huts at Studland on the Dorset coast vulnerable to being lost to the sea.
With climate change comes the challenge of constantly rising sea-levels, and the unpredictability of extreme weather makes having a clear adaptation plan is essential. There are many different ways we can look at adapting to climate change and adaptation has to be a key part of part of how we manage the coast, rather than relying solely on sea defences.
‘Rolling back’ is one clear way of adapting. It involves moving key infrastructure back out of harm’s way– such as moving a water treatment works up on to higher ground where it won’t flood. This approach is being developed at Birling Gap in Sussex where a flexible café and shop is being designed to be built out of harm’s way without over investing so that in twenty to thirty years’ time we can roll back again.
A light touch can also be taken – repairing a footpath that gives access to a popular beach in a simpler and more cost effective way than before, knowing that it might be swept away in the next big storm but can be readily replaced. At Rhossili on Gower the Trust is thinking about putting in place a more temporary path that can be easily repaired; putting it back the way that it was is no longer an option.
Sand and shingle get shifted around as waves crash on the shoreline, and when a storm hits a beach with a seawall the damage can escalate. The wall stops sand suspended in the fierce waves from naturally moving up the beach, instead taking it out to sea and depositing it in deeper water – a process known as beach lowering.
Removing these solid sea defences as they fail in the future will allow beaches to work more naturally, and ensure we have sandy beaches for future generations to enjoy.
We must also think carefully about any new development by the coast, and assess the vulnerability of each location.
There is a need to shift from our natural instinct to defend the land from the power of the sea towards a more holistic approach where adaptation is at the heart of this approach. If we begin this process now and start the conversation we can find solutions to living with a changing coastline.
Coast and Marine Adviser, National Trust
The report: “Shifting Shores – adapting to change report” provides an excellent overview of the issues faced by the National Trust.