Lotte Large, RSPB Futurescape Officer, East of England
In the aftermath of the highest storm surge since the Great Flood of 1953, communities are now taking stock of the damage to our eastern coastline. As people assess the damage to their homes and businesses, our staff have been doing the same with our nature reserves along the coast.
The news has been focussing on the success of sea walls, which in the conservation world are known as hard sea defences. These can be hugely effective, however what has been less forthcoming is how natural processes and what we term as ‘soft sea defences’ have played their part in protecting our coastline from further damage. Beaches, mudflats and salt marsh are all forms of natural sea defence where the power and force of waves are naturally diminished before reaching land. Soft sea defences are a cheap option compared to sea walls as they don’t need the same level of maintenance and are designed to work with natural processes rather than by restricting them. These natural sea defences work for wildlife and provide beautiful places for people to visit along the coast. There’s a great example of natural and man-made sea defences working well together at our Titchwell Marsh nature reserve on the North Norfolk Coast.
In 2011 we completed the Titchwell Coastal Change project which was specifically designed to provide a sustainable flood defence solution to cope with changing coastal processes and rising sea levels. The project included a new sea wall, which is what we normally think of when talking about sea defence. However, an opening was intentionally made in one end of the wall so that the seawater could find its way through and onto the brackish (a mix of fresh and sea water) marsh behind, which will eventually turn into salt marsh. The sea wall protects the freshwater habitats of the nature reserve and the salt marsh will in turn protect the wall itself by relieving the pressure it has to deal with from the sea. Sounds complicated but its actually a very simple natural process.
Titchwell was hit by the storm surge last night and the sea overtopped the wall due to the extraordinarily high waves. Sand dunes and paths have been damaged, however the staff are very relieved to report that the damage would have been catastrophic had the Coastal Change Project not been achieved a few years ago.
Titchwell after the storm / Steve Rowland
We can learn a lot from natural habitats and their relationship with the sea. By working with natural processes rather than attempting to restrict them we can find ways of protecting not only our homes but our natural environment in a sustainable way. The recent IPCC report on climate change served as a stark warning that the intensity of weather events will increase, and the seas will continue to rise.
Now is the time to start looking at how nature can benefit people and help us adapt to the effects of climate change into the future.
Guest post by Tom Hooper, Head of Marine Policy here at the RSPB.
Yesterday, 28 November, was a fairly typical day for our times. We continued to wrestle with issues of energy prices, house prices and immigration. Also published yesterday was the latest report on how climate change is impacting the seas around the UK. The slow, out-of-sight changes taking place in our seas somehow seem unimportant and insignificant in comparison; but I strongly believe that these impacts are going to have an increasingly significant bearing on our marine wildlife and wellbeing in the coming decades.
The report is produced by a partnership that brings together scientists, governments and conservation organisations like the RSPB. These organisations have looked at more than 30 different marine and coastal topics from the extent of sea ice to changes in sea level. As the timescale of this research extends, scientists are able to have greater confidence in picking out the difference between long-term trends and short-term variability. For example in the last decade, the average UK sea surface temperature was lower in 2008-2012 than it was in 2003-2007; but the projection remains that coastal waters will increase by 2.5°C by 2080.
Scientists are naturally cautious people – they are trained and expected to make conclusions based on what the data is telling them. Scientists routinely challenge each other, and this ‘peer review’ system is what makes the system more robust. This report explicitly builds in how confidence in the conclusions can both increase and decrease depending on the level of certainty and agreement.
Our oceans are a vast and complex system of physical, chemical and biological processes. I doubt if it will ever be possible to clearly identify the smoking gun from amidst these vast interactions, but what speaks loudest to me is the combination of so many different trends which are pointing to changes that are already having a significant impact on marine wildlife around the UK.
For the first time the report looks at the changes in Arctic sea-ice, and provides (with a medium level of confidence) that the average monthly extent has declined at a rate of 4% per decade since 1979 and that the last seven years have seen the lowest sea-ice extents recorded. Most models are now predicting the Arctic to be ice free in each late summer by the 2030s.
Climate change impacts can be seen in changes in the distribution and abundance of species, and the northwards progression of some species has been documented in the report. There is also increasing evidence that overwintering distributions of waders and waterfowl have shifted north and eastwards out of the UK.
Politically and individually we are notoriously bad at taking practical actions to prepare for the future. These predictions seem far away and unimportant, but the potential implications to our wildlife and wellbeing are enormous. Most of us are used to dealing with risk and uncertainty in our lives. We pay for insurance in the event that our house may burn down. We know it is unlikely, but on the basis that the impact will be catastrophic, we are content to make the sacrifice now. This latest report on marine climate change impacts is a reminder that we should take the same attitude when it comes to taking active steps to mitigate and prepare for the future.
What steps do you think we should be taking to mitigate against climate change? Is it solely something for Government or do we all have a part to play?
Today the fracking industry, represented by the UK Onshore Operators Group, and the water industry have announced that they will “work together to help minimise the impact of onshore oil and gas development in the UK on the country’s water resources”.
The deal is welcome recognition from both the shale gas industry and the water industry that the commercial exploitation of shale gas could threaten our water resources, both by placing a further demand on water on water scarce areas and by causing accidental pollution of aquifers and rivers.
It’s clear that many of these risks can be mitigated - but not eliminated – by ensuring the industry follows best practice, but this voluntary deal between the industries is a worrying sign that we will depending on good will rather than regulation to protect the natural environment.
Earlier this year, David Cameron promised that “ there is no reason why the process should cause contamination of water supplies or other environmental damage, if properly regulated....and the regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world. “
In reality, already the holes in the regulatory system is emerging.
Just this week, for example, MPs debated the lack of clear liability rules and suggested that a requirement for a financial guarantee from operators should be introduced to ensure that the taxpayer does not end out picking up the costs of cleaning up a pollution incident. Whilst earlier his year it emerged that at the Preese Hall fracking site the Environment Agency did not issue environmental permits for the disposal and management of flowback wastewater and only discovered after the site had been fracked that the flowback fluid should be classified as radioactive waste.
If anything today’s deal reinforces the fact that the regulatory regime for shale gas exploitation in this country is not yet fit for purpose. Why else would water companies be seeking extra assurances from the fracking industry?