The power of our coastlands to turn the tide on rising sea levels

Monday 8 November 2021

Through nature-based solutions we can create some amazing new places for wildlife and protect coastal communities from flooding.

When someone says the word ‘seaside’ for most of us our minds conjure up nostalgic images – splashing a sibling with freezing sea water, laying out a colourful, stripy beach towel onto the soft, warm sand perhaps or the first lick of your favourite flavour ice-cream dripping down your chin.

But the UK’s great seaside is so much more than a pretty place to while away an afternoon on a sun lounger (or huddled in a rain mac). Our coastlands are our first line of defence against rising sea levels, flooding and increasingly dangerous storm surges.

Seagrass meadows, kelp forests and cold-water reefs formed by corals, mussel beds and oysters can protect homes and businesses from coastal flooding. These habitats work in synergy with each other. For example, reefs and seagrass offshore protects saltmarshes from erosion, while oysters help to clean seawater as they filter-feed, which is essential for seagrass to flourish, and saltmarshes and seagrass act as nurseries for reef-building animals such as shellfish.

An 80-metre wide strip of saltmarsh could reduce the height a sea wall needs to be to protect buildings from 12 to 3 metres, saving £2,600 to £4,600 per metre of wall. 

Our coasts play hosts to some of the biggest and best seabird colonies in the world too. More than 40% of the birds graded red and amber in the UK Birds of Conservation Concern lists make their home in coastal habitats.

Yet these amazing habitats are disappearing. One fifth of England’s coastal habitats were lost between 1945 and 2010 mainly due to development such as golf courses and agriculture.  The area of seagrass meadows, which are home to incredible wildlife such as seahorses, that once surrounded the UK has halved in the last 25 years and up to 92% of seagrass habitat has been lost in the UK in total.

Researchers at non-profit Climate Central found large swathes of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are predicted to be below sea level by 2030 and flooding along the River Thames could drastically alter the landscape of London.

Seabird populations are already under intense pressure and need all the help they can get. Rising sea levels are flooding their nests and cutting off their foraging areas. Warming seas are making sandeels smaller – vital food for species such as puffins.

But we can help change the course of the future by restoring these amazing habitats. An RSPB report released earlier this year outlined how harnessing the power of our coasts can make a huge impact for people and nature.

A coastal realignment project at the RSPB Medmerry nature reserve in Sussex reduced annual flood risk to nearby homes from 100% to 0.1%. Medmerry, completed in 2013 as part of a partnership project with the Environment Agency, is one of the largest restoration schemes of its kind in Europe and created a nature reserve with 10km of new footpaths and cycle routes. Wading birds quickly colonised the area with avocets and black-winged stilts breeding at Medmerry in 2014.

Dangerous gales struck the south coast the same winter Medmerry was completed but the flood defence held firm. It has helped attract green tourism, allowed caravans parks to extend their season and is already becoming a natural fish nursery to help sustain the local fishing fleet. Much of the south east coastline of Sussex is low-lying farmland and farmers have found cows which graze on salt marsh grass taste delicious and can charge more for the meat.

A four-year restoration project led by the RSPB with the National Trust is investigating the best places to carry out similar large-scale restorations, with the long term aim of creating a series of “Medmerrys”.

Between 31 October and 12 November 2021, world leaders will get together in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. Here they will make long-lasting choices that will affect our day-to-day lives. We need to show that action speaks louder than words and we need your help. Simply take an action for nature, and tell us what you’ve done. Then you’ll stand with thousands of others to demand decision-makers follow our lead. Find out more about how to stand up for nature here.

Last Updated: Tuesday 25 January 2022

Tagged with: Country: UK Topic: Climate change