FThe beach at Winterton-on-sea is accessible from a distance. NorfolkLooks like the opening scene in Private Ryan SavingsWith hundreds of grey bodies laying motionless on the sand, It becomes apparent that they are not fallen soldiers, but a large colony of seals who came to the land for pupping season.
It’s an amazing annual sight that draws tourists and nature-lovers from across the country, but another process is taking place that is pushing people back – the growing threat of coastal erosion. The Dunes Cafe used to be located just along the coast from the Grey Seals’ army with their pups. It was a well-loved beach establishment with a loyal clientele.
It was destroyed by storms and land loss a year ago to stop its imminent collapse. It is gone, just like the cafe itself. It’s a story of disappearance taking place all along the eastern coast of England, but particularly in East Anglia, that bulbous protrusion jutting into the North Sea.
It is an old story that climate change and rising seas take their toll on our landscape, but it has a new twist. “The sea level’s been rising since the last ice age, 20,000 years ago or so,” says Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risk at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. “And it’s going faster. We’re probably not seeing its effect very much yet on the coast, though we will in the future.”
A 2020 report by the Committee on Climate Change, on which Hall sits as an expert on coastal erosion and flooding, found 1.2m homes at significant risk of flooding and a further 100,000 subject to coastal erosion by 2080 – which, although it sounds safely distant, will be within the lifetime of most of those born so far this century.
Climate Central, a US-based research group on climate change, went further than it did two years ago. It produced a Map showing the UK areas at greatest risk of being submerged by 2050. These included parts of north Norfolk, the entire Lincolnshire coast, and much of Cambridgeshire. There were also parts of East Yorkshire and Merseyside. According to the group, this would happen even if “moderate” attempts were made to combat climate change.
These predictions are based upon highly complex and controversial modelling, but there are significant warning signs that such an outcome may be becoming increasingly plausible. Last month, scientists who were monitoring the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica, an ice shelf about the same size as Great Britain, warned that it is. In danger of collapse.
“It’s being melted from below by warm ocean waters, causing it to lose its grip on the underwater mountain,” said Peter Davis from British Antarctic Survey and the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.
According to him, research suggests that the ice shelf could begin to crumble within two decades. If the ice shelf were to completely collapse, it could lead to a dramatic rise in sea levels of 60 cm. Although it may not be the worst-case scenario for the British coast, it will almost certainly have an impact.
Norfolk is in a sense a lesson in how weather can dramatically alter a landscape. Alex Clare, a chef set up a mobile silver Airstream café to serve the locals and visitors to the former Dunes Cafe. He’s had to move the Airstream four times in eight months, as sections of the dunes on which the car park sits have collapsed into the sea under pressure from storms and high tides.
“In the last two weeks,” Clare told me, “a strip about as long as this caravan has disappeared. You hear about erosion, but you don’t know what it means, what it involves, until you witness it. And it’s a shock to see the physical transformation.”
The car park owner has tried to slow the erosion by laying down large concrete blocks on the beach, but it’s the definition of a losing battle.
Winterton’s coast possesses a bleak beauty, enhanced by the fact that the village sits back from the sea, behind a broad wall of dunes. The opposite is true for Hemsby, which is about a mile south. It boasts amusement arcades as well as fairgrounds that stretch all the way to shoreline. A line of seven chalets was built four years ago near the edge of the sandy beaches.
As the land underneath them began to sink into seawater, it was necessary to remove them all. The local council is considering sea defenses but the only solution requires large-scale investment and extensive sandscaping. This is what happened at Bacton, 15-miles north of Winterton.
A four-mile-long dune was built to protect Bacton Terminal, which supplies around a third of the UK’s gas and had been moving steadily closer to the cliff edge, literally and metaphorically. Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch engineering firm, designed it. The project involved the placement 1.8 million cubic meters of sand along beaches near the terminal.
The design relies on the wind, waves, and tides shifting the sand into its proper place. The Dutch are world leaders in land reclamation and protection, having over the years reclaimed more than a sixth of Holland’s landmass from the sea.
“In the long run,” says Professor Hall, “any coast protection is temporary. We’ve been doing engineering to protect the coast for a very long time. Almost half of the UK coast has some kind of protection – sea walls, revetments, promenades, that kind of thing. The Victorians were inveterate promenade builders.”
Such protections don’t stop the sea rising. They only temporarily fix the shore profile’s point. Wooden revetments were used at Happisburgh near Bacton until they fell 20 years ago. This resulted in a sudden and severe exposure to the sea.
“Once you lose [the protection], there’s a lot of pent-up erosion capacity,” says Hall.
Although there is growing media coverage of coastal erosion, it’s as Alex Clare said: knowledge of the thing isn’t the same as experiencing it. “There’s a bit more recognition that the sea level is rising fast,” says Hall. “But I don’t think coastal communities have really understood what the future holds.” He believes there should be an “honest conversation” between government, local government and the affected communities.
While the money required to protect cities like London and Hull will have to be found, that’s not likely with isolated villages. The locals in Norfolk seemed to be denial or fatalistic when I visited them last month. They pointed out that the situation was worse elsewhere, either up or downstream. As I drove back, it started to rain and the weather worsened that night. The next day, it was raining. large landslideMundesley, near Bacton. A large chunk of the cliff faces has collapsed onto the beach. Above it, houses stood on the precipice, their future looking about as secure as Norwich’s position in the Premier League.
As Pete Revell, station manager at Bacton HM Coastguard, said, Mundesley was viewed as stable by comparison with nearby Happisburgh, and the landslide came as “a bit of a surprise”. It certainly shocked local resident Antony Lloyd, who said he was “very nervous and agitated about any further incidents.” He was finding it hard to sleep and thought he would have to move.
The occasional loss of beachside homes or landfalls are not causes for panic. But like canaries in a coal mine, the inhabitants of the villages strung along Norfolk’s shifting coastline are a warning of a worrying future. There are many processes that are underway that cannot be stopped, but others that are inevitable. But it will require long-term vision and unblinking action, both of which are not national strengths.
If you take the path north from Winterton’s beach car park you come to the roped-off seal sanctuary. The sanctuary is hundreds of yards away from the beach, where seals and their pups are vulnerable and still in the dunes. It will, but not next year or now, but much sooner than anyone thinks.