Living with change - our shifting shores

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Adapting to a changing coastline

Reliance on defence as the only strategy for our coastline looks less plausible in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. We need to have policies to support adaptation. This is about long-term planning and accepting that our coast has always, and will always, change. The challenge for the twenty-first century is that the process of change is accelerating as sea levels rise four-times faster than they did in the previous one hundred years.

How our places have been impacted

The impact of the winter storms on our coastal places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been 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 East Sussex this stretch of chalk cliff has seen erosion, which would normally take over seven years, happen 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.

Adaptation is key

With climate change comes the challenge of constantly rising sea-levels, and the unpredictability of extreme weather makes having a clear adaptation plan 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 where a flexible café and shop is being designed to be built further back from the coastline without over-investing, so that in twenty to thirty years’ time we can roll back again.

A light touch can also be taken. One example is by repairing a footpath that gives access to a popular beach in a simpler and more cost effective way than before, so that it can be readily replaced if it is swept away in the next big storm. At Rhossili on Gower we're thinking about installing a more temporary path that can be easily repaired; putting it back the way that it was is no longer an option.

Building for the future

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, ensuring 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. If we begin this process now and start the conversation, we can find solutions to living with a changing coastline.