Only a few weeks ago, five properties in the seaside village of Hemsby, Norfolk, were demolished due to severe coastal erosion; and many remain at risk, after strong storms slashed away six metres of sand in two days. But this has happened in Hemsby before: in the 2013 tidal surge, three houses fell into the sea and others were badly damaged by storms – and this is happening all around the British coast.

The UK coastline has been changing through natural events like coastal erosion for thousands of years. It is what has shaped dramatic sea views and wildlife-rich habitats upon which most of our coastal economy depends.

But the impact of sea and weather forces on our coastline, since at least the Industrial Revolution, has been compounded by the role of human development on the coast. The growth of coastal towns and cities – including their industry, tourism and agriculture – adds great pressures to the coastal environment. As we’ve invested in local infrastructure and buildings, we’ve needed to protect these assets from the natural changes brought by the sea, building hard defences’ like seawalls and groynes. Over the years these hard defences have led to the decline of coastal habitats, leaving our coast more fragile and exposed. And climate change has brought a new pace to coastal change.

The impact of sea and weather forces on our coastline, since at least the Industrial Revolution, has been compounded by the role of human development on the coast.

As a result of higher temperatures and melting polar ice sheets, climate change is leading to a rise in sea-levels. Just last week it was announced that scientists from the UK and the US will start a major expedition in Antarctica later this year to get a better understanding of how quickly sea levels might rise – with timescales for dramatic rise going down from centuries to decades.

More than 145 million people around the world live three feet or less above sea level. Globally, sea level rise and the increased prevalence of storms will disproportionately impact the poor, in places which do not have the infrastructure or economic resources to build climate resilience. Sea level rise has the potential to create millions of displaced people in the coming decades. And without a concerted effort, this pattern will be replicated in the UK, where coastal areas are generally disproportionately socially, economically and environmentally disadvantaged.

The case of the Benacre estate on the Suffolk coast illustrates the problems with our current coastal resilience model, its economic, social, and environmental failings. The privately owned estate loses several acres of land to fooding and coastal erosion each year. Currently, public money is being used to fund hard defences to protect a pumping station, which is keeping the land artificially dry. But whilst this private land is being protected, this solution forces the sea to wash north and south, causing problems elsewhere on the coastline. Furthermore, this is not a sustainable or cost-effective solution – the last defence built in 2011 was meant to be long-term, yet it came down less than two years later during the 2013 tidal surge that hit the east coast of England. 

But a more natural management of Kessingland’s coast is being explored by local stakeholders, one that could work with nature rather than against it. Solutions include managed realignment’. This would transform this stretch of coast into a new habitat bringing social and economic benefits, such as ecotourism jobs, by allowing’ part of the coast to be taken by the water. It is an uphill battle however: the existing policy framework discourages long-term planning, and there is a shortage of financing for these type of schemes. Most challengingly, local people are largely excluded from the decision-making process, which means the broader benefits to local communities are not accounted for, and wider buy-in is lacking.

Communities need to be given the appropriate support to work to build climate change resilience beyond ineffective, unaffordable wall defences.

Communities need to be given the appropriate support to work to build climate change resilience beyond ineffective, unaffordable wall defences. For example, communities can work with designers to look at different types of buildings and infrastructure that are able to be relocated as the coast erodes, like the National Trust solution at Birling Gap. Rather than seeing coastal change as one problem amongst many facing coastal communities, we need to address it by seeing how these places can design a better future for themselves.

But adaptation will be in vain without a parallel focus on climate change mitigation. Often climate adaptations are formulated around a fragile projection of the scale of climate impacts. Without mitigation efforts, climate impacts are likely to be stronger and more devastating, leaving our adaptations useless.

The recent news story about America’s first climate refugees’ from the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, shows what may happen when adaptation is insufficient. It is the first attempt by the US government to proactively relocate an entire community. The goal is to keep the community together, but will not be possible to maintain the community’s island ways of life.These challenges must be faced openly, with communities working together to explore solutions and support given to them in implementing their plans.

For the various communities in the UK with an eroding coastline, a national debate about how we adapt positively, including fair relocation deals, must happen now. The Government must ensure that innovative approaches to coastal adaptation are seen as important as just defending the coast. 

Photo: Mike Marlow