Almost 200,000 properties in England will have to be abandoned due to rising sea levels by 2050, according to a report.
Analyze where the water will cause the most damage and whether the defenses are technically and financially feasible.
There is a consensus among scientists that decades of sea level rise are inevitable and the government has said that not all property can be saved.
Around a third of England’s coastline will come under pressure from rising sea levels, the report says.
“It just won’t be possible to hold the line around the coast,” says report author Paul Sayers, an expert on flooding and coastal hazards, adding that tough decisions will have to be made about what is realistic to protect.
“These are the places that we are going to keep and these are the places that we are not going to keep, so we need an honest discussion about how we are going to do that and support the communities where they are affected.”
The study is published in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management.
What to protect?
Sayers’ report lists South West, North West and East Anglia among the parts of England with the highest number of properties at risk of flooding. Sea level rise not only increases the risk of coastal and estuarine flooding, but also accelerates coastal erosion through larger and more powerful waves.
The study for the first time looks at places where the costs of upgrading defenses may be too high or technically impossible. It found that by 2050, assuming conservative sea level rise caused by temperature increases of 2°C by 2100, up to 160,000 properties are at risk of needing relocation. That’s in addition to between 30,000 and 35,000 properties that have already been identified as at risk.
“There is no real engineering limit on how well we can protect ourselves, so for London, for example, the Thames Barrier and all the walls and embankments continue to rise in response to sea level rise.” Sayers explained to BBC News on the beach at Happisburgh in north Norfolk.
“There’s not going to be any money, under the current funding rules to protect everyone.”
The Happisburgh Dilemma
Happisburgh, a quaint little Anglo-Saxon town with a distinctive red-and-white-striped lighthouse, is unlikely to receive more money for sea defences. And its coastline is already rapidly crumbling.
The ground under Bryony Nierop-Reading’s bungalow fell into the sea in 2013 and there is now a security barrier across her street that ends abruptly at the top of the cliff.
“Road Closed,” reads the red and white sign. On it are handwritten dates and numbers where for the past six months the 77-year-old has been documenting the retreating track.
“Eight meters in December 2021, now it’s 3.4 meters,” he says with a sigh.
Bryony has good reason to monitor erosion. When her bungalow was demolished, she decided to move just 50m down the road to a house that is also destined to crumble into the sea. “It will probably last until 2030,” she says.
Bryony does not accept the district council’s decision that Happisburgh should not be protected by new sea defences. He points to a £20m offshore project where large amounts of sand have been dumped ashore to protect a gas terminal.
“It’s such a weak and unpatriotic attitude,” she says. “I think we should say that our country, our land, our agricultural land, is important enough that we need to divert funds to it.”
Bryony has launched an organization to try to attract renewed interest in some new sea defenses.
“It’s the Save Happisburgh Action Group,” he tells me. “The name Shag makes people laugh, but a cormorant is a sea bird that has to fight to survive against impossible odds. That’s very fitting for Happisburgh.”
Bryony’s view is not universally held in Happisburgh. And his is not the only campaign group.
“The sea is very powerful. Even more powerful than Boris Johnson,” says the booming voice of Malcolm Kirby, one of the founders of the Happisburgh Coastal Action Group.
Malcolm is 81 years old and has been involved in finding a solution to Happisburgh’s erosion problem for over 20 years. In 2009, he helped devise a government-backed “Pathfinder” project whereby the government offered market price to homeowners about to fall into the sea and helped resettle them inland. He calls it “backing up.”
“Or you commit to spending billions over a long period of time,” he says. “Or you say okay, in light of what’s coming with climate change and sea level rise, we’ll do a properly managed pullout and take care of people as we go.”
Happisburgh’s Pathfinder project is now seen as an example of how the rest of the UK could adapt. Along with East Yorkshire, North Norfolk has been chosen to be part of a £36m Coastal Transition Accelerator Program which will look at ideas such as establishing “green buffer zones” between communities and facilitating ” managed transition of communities from high-risk lands. “.
At the Happisburgh pub, owner Clive Stockton says the realization that the town will slowly fall into the sea casts a long shadow.
“As soon as the decision is made that there is no defense, all normal business transactions, whether they are business loans for businesses or insurance, cease to exist,” he says.
“The problem doesn’t just start when properties start falling off the cliff.”
Clive believes there is a happy medium and would like to see a combination of relocation and defense to slow the advancing sea.
“Inevitable is a long way off,” he says.
“Climate change was created by the entire human race over the last 40 or 50 years. Why should a small proportion of people on the coast pay the price for that?”