Climate change nibbling away at Britain's coastline

Climate change nibbling away at Britain's coastline

The Climate Camp is seen in Trafalgar Square in London. The impromptu camp has been set up to highlight climate issues, to coincide with the Climate Conference in Copenhagen. AP"The flooding and intense storms are a sign of change and a reminder of the impact of climate change," Alison Baptiste, the deputy head of flood strategy at Britain's Environment Agency (EA) said.

Baptiste believes that government investment in flood defences and the prevention of coastal erosion have been "as good as it can be". But the threat is now so severe that there was a need to "prioritise investment in areas most at risk".

According to estimates by the Bristol-based agency, up to 250 properties in Britain are likely to "fall into the sea" over the next 20 years, with a further 2,000 at risk from coastal erosion.

About 28 percent of the coast of England and Wales is subject to erosion of more than 10 centimetres per year, a rate that could reach an average of 1.8 metres per year, said Baptiste.

"In reality, coastal erosion is not always gradual, it can occur through events such as landslips, where many metres of land may be lost once every five or 10 years," she explained, adding that the combination of factors involved made accurate predictions difficult.

The government environment think tank Foresight predicts that, under current climatic conditions, the coast of England and Wales could experience an average of up to 67 metres of land lost to erosion over the next 100 years.

However, it was possible that erosion could increase to 175 metres by 2100, due to the impact of the world's changing climate.

The most affected areas in England and Wales are the "soft cliffs" on the North Sea coast of eastern England and the south-west coast of southern Britain.

The coastline of Holderness, in East Yorkshire in the north-east of England, is known to be among the most vulnerable in the world as the soft boulder clay cliffs, left after the retreat of the Devensian ice sheets some 12,000 years ago, are rapidly eaten away by the sea.

Another notorious spot is the "crumbling cliffs of Happisburgh" in north-east Norfolk, where inhabitants of clifftop homes could face the fate of becoming Britain's first "climate change refugees", according to expert predictions.

Insurers, meanwhile, have warned that the cost of a major coastal flood in Britain could soar by 400 percent if improvements to existing flood defences were not made soon.
The Association of British Insurers anticipates that a rise of 40 centimetres in sea levels could occur as early as 2040, putting an extra 130,000 properties at risk of flooding.

The government has committed itself to increasing public spending on flood risk and coastal erosion. It will spend more than 2.1 billion pounds ($3.4 billion) over the next three years.

It has conceded, however, that "short-term measures affordable to government "were in themselves not enough and that government at every level, as well as businesses, individuals and communities needed to "pool resources to tackle the risk we face".

"Under every scenario, our analysis suggests that if current flood management policies remain unchanged, the risk of flooding and coastal erosion will increase greatly over the next 30 to 100 years," said Foresight in a study.

The Environment Agency, calling for a doubling of investment by 2035, said if investment remained at the current level, a further 350,000 properties would be at risk from flooding by the mid-2030s.

Foresight predicted that if spending on coastal erosion stayed the same, the annual average damage was set to increase by three to nine times by 2080.

"Present levels of expenditure on coastal defence will not keep pace with coastal erosion in the coming decades and approximately one third of existing coastal defences could be destroyed," the think tank warned in a recent study.

In view of the enormity of the task, it is perhaps not surprising that Chris Smith, the head of the Environment Agency, admitted in a recent interview with the Times that Britain would struggle to defend its coastline.

"There will be parts of the coast that can't in perpetuity be defended. We can't build a concrete wall around the whole of England," said Smith.

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