Flirting with retreat along Britain's battered shores

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By  walnut whippet CC BY 2.0
By walnut whippet CC BY 2.0

By Alister Doyle and Ryan McNeill

Happisburgh, England
- Bryony Nierop-Reading has what she calls a million-dollar view from her clifftop property in east England, looking out over North Sea swells beyond a sandy beach where gulls wheel overhead.

The drawback: The place is all but worthless.

Her bungalow was demolished by the local council after a December 2013 storm bit a 33-foot (10 meter) chunk out of the cliff, leaving her home perched over a void. She now lives in a camper parked at the back of her property.

"It was devastating, with the tidal surge and the demolition of my house," said the 69-year-old grandmother, standing at the edge of a 65-foot cliff face of soft yellowish earth. "I feel bitter about it."

All the more so because she passed up a one-time local government offer to buy her out. Now she's out of options: Current British law "does not confer ... any right to protection from flooding or coastal erosion," as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) puts it.

The law in question, the 1949 Coastal Protection Act, is becoming outdated as rising sea levels lead to worsening storm flooding and coastal erosion. With no legal obligation to protect coastal residents, the British government relies on a cost-benefit calculus to determine which areas warrant investment in seawalls, revetments and other protective measures, and which don't. Rural populations wind up getting little help, while big cities tend to get a blank check of protection.

"We are trying to fix a problem with a 70-year-old toolkit," said Malcolm Kerby, head of the National Voice of Coastal Communities, a Happisburgh-based group that advocates for rural communities vulnerable to rising seas.

In the absence of a modern toolkit, some seaside communities are experimenting with programs meant to help adapt to coastal erosion by luring people to retreat. In Happisburgh, the local council offered Nierop-Reading a chance a few years ago to sell her place for more than twice what she paid for it and move to stable ground. Most of her cliffside neighbors took up the one-time offer; she didn't, and she's unable to rebuild on what's left of a lot that no one will buy.


Sea levels have risen an average of 8 inches globally over the past century as a result of glacial thaw, polar ice melt and the expansion of water as it warms, according to the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For much of Europe, higher seas are aggravating storm surges like those that battered Britain last winter - setting up daunting political and economic choices about what to do in response.

At Lowestoft, about 30 miles south of Happisburgh, the sea has risen 4.1 inches since 1962, based on readings from a tide gauge there. It's one of at least 105 gauges worldwide to show an increase of 4 inches or more during the same period, according to a Reuters analysis of data from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, based in Liverpool, England. The analysis encompassed annual sea level readings from 229 tide gauges worldwide with data covering a 50-year period.

In Europe, the largest increase was at Dieppe, France, a city on the English Channel. Like Happisburgh, its cliffs are crumbling as seas rise. A gauge in the harbor showed an increase of about 8 inches since 1960.

Around the world, the biggest increases were in Asia, reflecting the greater impact in that region of subsidence, the process by which geological forces and the extraction of groundwater cause the land to sink. Near Bangkok, Thailand, a tide gauge showed an increase of nearly 3 feet since 1959. In Manila, the Philippines, the sea level rose about 2.7 feet.

As the rising waters take a worsening toll, European governments and local authorities are forced to ask: What's our coastline worth? And can we afford to defend it all?

About 200 million people - 40 percent of the European Union's population - live within 30 miles (50 km) of the sea, and the numbers are growing. In some parts of the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and France, the population jumped as much as 50 percent from 2001 to 2011.

In most cases, EU coastal investments are focused on strengthening existing infrastructure to deal with sea level rise and more extreme weather. France, Spain and Italy, in particular, prefer to add sand to beaches and reinforce other coastal defenses as needed in order to maintain big sources of tourism dollars. Apart from scattered experiments such as Happisburgh, European nations are not encouraging people to retreat inland.


But as the costs of protection rise, Britain, Germany and some other nations have begun giving up besieged land to the sea. This process of retreating from rising seas is euphemistically referred to as "managed realignment."

Since the 1990s, dikes and levees sometimes centuries old have been destroyed in 118 projects around Europe, converting 15,500 acres (6,300 hectares) of farmland into salt marshes or tidal wetlands, according to a database run by ABP Marine Environmental Research Ltd, a British marine environmental consultancy.

That's an area about the size of Manhattan - not huge. But governments expect sea levels to continue to rise as fast as or faster than they already have. Last month, the IPCC released a report saying that the burning of fossil fuels is stoking climate change, leading to harsher weather and greater flooding. The U.N. panel said average global sea levels may climb by between 10 and 32 inches by the late 21st century.

As a result, letting the sea flood lowlands while building new defenses farther inland may become the cheaper and preferable solution. So far, though, people haven't always been eager to surrender.

"We will have to retreat sooner or later as sea levels rise - the financial costs of holding the shoreline in place ... will eventually force our hand," said geologist Andrew Cooper, professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster. "But I'm afraid we will only come to that point, kicking and screaming, when we have exhausted our money."

The dilemma has prompted big engineering firms, which stand to profit hugely from increasing efforts at coastal defense, to experiment with approaches that fall somewhere between hard armoring of the coast and abandoning it.

Dutch companies have dominated the business of keeping the sea at bay because of their nation's long experience with the problem. Twenty-six percent of the nation is below sea level. And unlike its fellow EU members, Holland guarantees to keep citizens dry.

"In the Netherlands it costs about 1.3 percent of GDP to build and maintain sea defenses. But if we don't do it, we won't even have a GDP," said Lisette Heuer, technical director of engineering group Royal HaskoningDHV.

Geologically, Britain is in a slightly better position. The island was connected by a land bridge to Europe until 6,000 years ago, when fast-rising seas after the last Ice Age separated it from the Continent. More recently, as the pace of sea level rise has picked up, storm damage and flooding have increased.

Last winter, a string of severe storms contributed to the wettest season in more than two centuries in England and Wales. At least 6,000 homes were inundated. Though most of the flooding occurred inland, big waves chewed away chunks of ocean shoreline, underscoring the vulnerability of property owners with no legal claim for government protection.


London, vulnerable to storm surges moving up the Thames estuary, will be protected at almost any cost. The metropolis already has the Thames Barrier, a system of 10 giant steel gates that can be raised to stave off surges. It was completed in the early 1980s at a cost of £500 million ($782 million), unadjusted for inflation. The barrier had to be closed more than 50 times last winter, shattering previous records.

Places like Mullion Cove aren't so fortunate. Winter storms dislodged 7,000 granite blocks from the walls that guard the picturesque fishing harbor, which lies between high cliffs in Cornwall on the southwest coast. Repairs are estimated to cost £400,000.

The bill will be paid by the National Trust, founded to protect the nation's historical and natural heritage. It owns 742 miles of coastline, including Mullion Cove.

For the Trust, "defense is the last resort" when addressing the effects of sea level rise, according to an April 2014 Trust strategy report. Instead, the Trust intends to let coasts change over time, relying on salt marshes and sand dunes to act as buffers against angry seas where possible.

In Mullion Cove, the Trust says that it has already spent more than £1 million in the past decade or so on repairing the seawall, but that it won't keep covering the costs indefinitely. "We can't just keep plowing money into it," said Justin Whitehouse, head ranger for the National Trust in the region.

That's no comfort to residents of the several homes that have lined the cove since before the seawall was built in the late 19th century. "If the wall does go, these houses will go without a shadow of doubt," said harbor master Roger Pashley. "Nothing would stop the sea."

Hannah Hawkins, an artist who lives in the house nearest the sea, had to evacuate one winter night when storm-driven waves poured over the wall. "A little work each year would be enough to maintain it," she said.

That sentiment prevails in many communities vulnerable to rising seas. Residents tend to prefer the unsustainable protection of seawalls and levees to abandoning land to the sea.


"Do we have to retreat? That's not a technical question, it's a socio-political question," said Robert Nicholls, a professor of coastal engineering at Southampton University. "In rich countries you could armor your whole coastline - but at the expense of hospitals, education or pensions."

This month, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron said it planned to invest £2.3 billion in flood defense over the next six years. The money will go mostly toward protecting against river, rather than coastal, flooding, and it comes in addition to annual maintenance budgets, which totaled £171 million for 2014-15. (Last month, the National Audit Office said current spending was "inadequate" and that half of the nation's flood defenses were maintained to a "minimal level.")

The tension between the desire to stand one's ground and the practical necessity to retreat is playing out about 50 miles east of London. There, a conga line of trucks laden with mud rumble across a plain at Wallasea Island to create what by 2019 will be the biggest man-made coastal nature reserve in Europe.

The mud comes from tunnels dug below London for a new underground railway; it is being dumped on Wallasea Island to form raised pathways amid wetlands and mudflats on former farmland that is a haven for avocets, sandpipers and other birds.

This managed realignment, which will ultimately encompass 1,730 acres, was born a decade ago when Defra decided that worsening storms were making the island's defenses too expensive to maintain. It began creating mudflats from farmland by breaching seawalls built when the land was originally claimed from the North Sea 400 years ago. In 2008, railway operator Crossrail signed on as a supplier of mud. When completed, the project will have cost about £100 million.

"It's a win-win. This land would probably be inundated in time anyway," said Neil Hodson, a project field manager at Crossrail. "We can't defend all of the country. Part is going to be washed away in time." he said.

John White, a farm manager who has grown wheat and other crops on the land, is among the segment of locals who see the project as a betrayal of their heritage. "I feel I have wasted my life," he said. "It's worth saving. These farms have been here for centuries."

Andrew Gilham, flood and coastal risk manager at the Environment Agency, said the agency did a better job winning over local farmers in a £28 million managed realignment at Medmerry on England's south coast.

There, about 450 acres of farmland claimed in medieval times are being allowed to flood with seawater after authorities stopped paying for bulldozing shingle - pebbles and stones - up the beach each winter as a defense. Now, a 4.5-mile flood bank encloses a new tidal area reaching up to one mile inland from the old shoreline.

Locals were unenthusiastic when managed realignment was first suggested. "Then in 2006-07 we took a different approach, highlighting the risks of climate change and saying, 'We can provide better defense against coastal flooding.' That change in the argument led to acceptance," Gilham said.

All of the farmers were paid compensation for land lost to the sea. That's been the case in all managed realignments in Britain and elsewhere in the EU to date.

In Britain, the Environment Agency uses a basic formula to determine whether to help local councils pay for coastal protection: The value of land and buildings shielded has to be at least eight times the cost of protection.

Happisburgh, like a lot of places, didn't pass the test. The North Norfolk Council built steel and wooden defenses after the historic floods of 1953, in which more than 1,800 people in the Netherlands and 300 in Britain were drowned. When those started to fail, the council cut back on all but stop-gap investments.


But something more had to be done. One section of coast near the village of 1,400 people retreated 115 yards in the two decades to 2004. More has been lost since.

Then, in 2009, the local council won £3 million of an £11 million government-funded "Coastal Change Pathfinder Program" to help a handful of communities experiment with ways to cope with erosion.

Happisburgh's clifftop homeowners were offered 40 percent of what their homes would be worth had they not been at risk of collapse. For instance, a home that would fetch £100,000 if situated on a stable clifftop would have been valued at £40,000.

Kerby of the National Voice of Coastal Communities said the hope was that homeowners would rebuild in the village, but farther inland, thus helping to preserve the community for the long term.

Nierop-Reading, a retired teacher, had paid £25,000 for her bungalow in 2008. At the time, it stood about 20 yards from the cliff edge, and she knew erosion was a problem. Insurers refused to cover the home, and a local real estate agent had valued it at £1 for mortgage purposes. But she figured she could live out her retirement with the spectacular view before the sea staked its claim.

The Pathfinder program offered her £53,000 to move out. She refused. "I would have considered a better offer, say £100,000," she said.

Nine other homeowners accepted their offers. But they didn't stay in Happisburgh. Some moved to local villages, one opened a cafe in a nearby town, and one moved to a home for the elderly.

A government-funded review in 2011 criticized the Happisburgh experiment as too generous to owners of nearly worthless homes.

The local council, however, judged it a success overall. "People have individual needs and aspirations," said Peter Frew, who headed the project at the local council. "They went and did different things."

Ultimately, Kerby said, places like Happisburgh will have no choice but to retreat. "It's a pretty powerful mistress out there. You will never command it," he said, pointing to the sea. "And the bottom line ... is that we are broke. We can't get involved in putting millions of pounds into defenses."

(Edited by John Blanton)

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