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Should coastal Britain surrender to the tides?

Flooding in Cornwall, U.K.

Huge waves engulf the seafront in Porthleven, Cornwall. Photograph: Annabel May Oakley-Watson/REX


Powered by article titled “Should coastal Britain surrender to the tides?” was written by Patrick Barkham, for The Guardian on Friday 7th February 2014 17.59 UTC

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 cowering behind terrifying blasts of spray this week, 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, and it is writ large in the government’s response to this week’s water torture. David Cameron pledged £100m for repairs and maintenance of our battered coastline and the stricken Somerset Levels. Eric Pickles added £30m and criticised 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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year increased its projections for sea level rise. Some climate scientists predict a global rise of between 0.7 and 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 any GCSE geographer can explain that hard defences will never stop erosion.

Aftermath of UK Floods

A before-and-after comparison showing the destruction last month of a rock stack off the Dorset coast at Portland. Photograph: Apex

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.


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