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Cliff collapse warning sign with sea cliffs in background
Lois GoBe / shutterstock

Can the UK’s crumbling coasts be saved from erosion?

Erosion is constantly reshaping coastlines as land is swept into the sea, sometimes along with buildings and infrastructure. The UK has some of the fastest eroding coastlines in Europe. Of the mainland’s 17,000km of coastline, around 2,900km (17%) is affected by erosion.

Defending this entire coastline would be prohibitively expensive and destroy many of the things we love about the coast – few want to see boulders dumped on their local beach or large stretches of concrete wall. So instead of asking how UK coastlines can be “saved” from erosion, we need to instead consider how they can be managed in a sustainable, holistic way that protects people who live along the coast and allows them to adapt to change.

A number of sewage treatment works, landfill sites and railway lines are already prone to significant flooding, while seawater can flow over defences during storms, contaminating agricultural land and groundwater supplies. Infrastructure such as these will become more at risk as rising seas cause increased erosion and flooding.

A house on a clifftop viewed from below
Eroding cliffs creep towards a doomed house in Happisburgh, Norfolk. Philip Bird / shutterstock

Despite coastline management plans and adaptation measures, such as raising flood defences or managed retreat, the risks are not removed entirely and erosion has continued to exacerbate hazards like storm surges and landslides. Minimising damage and improving the safety of coastal communities is vitally important.

Defences v erosion

Erosion and deposition of sediment are continuously changing the shape of the UK, with the east coast losing several hundred kilometres of land over the past half century. The ever-changing coastline requires maps to be regularly updated using the latest GPS measurements and satellite images. These observations represent a historical snapshot in time, and trying to predict what the coastline will look like in 50 years is difficult as climate change and rising seas are accelerating erosion rates.

Erosion is a major issue, particularly in smaller towns and villages along the UK’s southern and eastern coasts. Barton-on-Sea, a small coastal town in Hampshire, is one such example where residents are worried about their safety due to landslides and high erosion rates. Several meters of frontage have crumbled into the sea and the entire seafront is now classified as highly vulnerable to erosion.

Eroding cliff viewed from below
Barton-on-Sea’s eroding cliffs viewed from below. Komali Kantamaneni, Author provided

Extensive stretches of rock armour (large boulders that absorb the force of waves) and groynes (structures built from the shore into the sea, designed to trap sediment) were established to provide protection. However, these protections concentrate wave energy in adjacent sites and starve them of sediment leading to accelerated erosion further down the coast. These defences are also unlikely to be effective against stronger storms and higher seas in the future.

Eroding cliffs beside the sea
…and the same erosion viewed from the clifftop. Komali Kantamaneni, Author provided

Erosion management strategies like this are often divisive, as sediment removed from one section of coastline frequently supplies sand for beaches in another. Beaches provide income from tourism and protection from erosion and flooding. Barton-on-Sea is not the only case where halting erosion in one area has accelerated it in another, and poorly planned coastal defences can have far-reaching detrimental impacts.

Coastal vulnerability and hotspots

One of us (Komali Kantamaneni) developed an method to compare coastal vulnerability in different areas and identified 11 hotspots where the UK coast was most vulnerable to erosion, and where such erosion would be most economically damaging. These hotspots included towns like Skegness and Great Yarmouth in England and Port Talbot and Aberystwyth in Wales. Together, these areas contain £22 billion worth of homes, offices, public buildings, infrastructure and other assets. Flooding, erosion and storm surges in these towns would threaten more than 100,000 people and 50,000 properties.

As coastal areas are increasingly settled, erosion is becoming a bigger risk to society. Towns like Aberystwyth are particularly vulnerable to strong waves, often several metres high. New developments and redevelopments in the town are exposing more people to the effects of erosion, leading to greater economic losses from flooding and storm damage.

Map of UK with dots representing vulnerable hotspots.
Economic vulnerability to erosion of selected ‘hotspots’. Komali Kantamaneni, Author provided

Sites such as Hornsea, Camber Sands, Sunderland, Bognor and Withernsea have already lost several hundred meters of coastline, and much of their coastline will crumble into the sea in the next 20 years.

There is, of course, still significant uncertainty about how vulnerable different stretches of the coastline are to erosion. Differing geologies, coastal defences, wave properties and weather make every site respond differently to the effects of climate and land-use change.

Regions vulnerable to erosion need to take steps to reduce the impact of associated hazards like flooding or landslides. Interventions need to be sympathetic to the needs of locals, those down coast and the environment. If we fail to do this, we will encounter ever-increasing societal costs and environmental destruction.

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