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Coastal shift

PUBLISHED: 17:06 30 July 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Cliffs

Cliffs

Will the Kent coast always look like it does now? Unlikely. By 2100 is estimated that sea level changes wrought by climate change will have altered the map and we could find ourselves with a county that looks very different to the one we know and ...

Will the Kent coast always look like it does now? Unlikely. By 2100 is estimated that sea level changes wrought by climate change will have altered the map and we could find ourselves with a county that looks very different to the one we know and love today

Whether an act of humility or egotistical mania, King Canute's tidal antics in the 11th century confirmed that the sea does what it wants. We've come a long way since, developing more sophisticated ways of thwarting the sea other than a pair of kingly ankles.

Around the county, coastal communities enjoy protection via a network of flood defences. They ensure that, even when the sea is at its bolshiest, those at risk from flooding (10 per cent of Kent's population), can sleep safe in the knowledge that they won't end up sharing more in common with Atlantis than Ashford.

But will this be the case forever? According to Ted Edwards of the South East Coastal Group, which works to encourage a strategic approach to the management of the region's coastal zone, protecting the coast against the sea is set to become more challenging in the future.

"With climate change, we are going to have a rise in sea levels," he warns. "The current government guidelines for sea level rise in Kent are that the rate is 4mm per year, but rising much more steeply towards the end of the century, when the rate is predicted to be 15mm per year. In broad terms, sea level rise could be 100mm in 20 years time, 400mm in 50 years time and one metre in 100 years time."

In coastal terms, this could lead to a radical reshaping of the county. Low-lying areas such as Romney Marsh would be severely affected and end up looking very different to how they do today. This raises the inevitable question: will current sea defences be enough? "This depends entirely upon the levels of sea rises," says Jan Leslie, press officer with the Environment Agency in Kent.

"If sea levels rise by the predicted one metre over the coming 100 years, then sea defences are still viable. If we experience an unexpected rise in sea levels, we woud have to re-evaluate." The problem is that there are those within the scientific community who think that because the effects of climate change are unpredictable, so too could be any rise in sea levels and we could possibly see changes in excess of those currently envisioned.

Equally, the Environment Agency's ability to protect the coast is not predictable, dependent as it is upon the existence of the economic will and ability of the government of the day to meet not just forecasted challenges, but any unforeseen ones, too.

It is not beyond reason to speculate that if sea levels rise higher than those currently predicted, and there are budget constraints as well, then the government might start to prioritise areas for defence. It's unlikely that sparsely populated coastal communities will be top of any list.

The Environment Agency has completed a review of coastal defences in Kent. In Romney Marsh, where much of the land lies not far above sea level, the review caused concern.

"I think what shocked us most was that one of the options considered around the Lydd area was something called managed realignment," says Brigitte Bass of Defend Our Coast (DOC), an organisation created to protect the interests of coastal communities in the Romney Marsh area on the issue of sea defences.

"That might sound innocuous, but in reality what it could mean for someone living directly on the coast is the potential loss of their home, because effectively the flood defences are abandoned and the line of defence against the sea moved further back."

Managed realignment, sometimes referred to as managed retreat, is one of several 'soft' engineering options available to coastal planners.

In most cases, it involves breaching an existing coastal defence, such as a sea wall or an embankment, and allowing the land behind to be flooded by the incoming tide.

This land is then left to be colonised by saltmarsh vegetation, which disperses wave energy during storm events, reduces erosion rates and provides an important habitat for coastal flora and fauna.

The problem for the communities affected, as Brigitte explains, is that under this option they are effectively left to the mercy of the sea. "What we have found out during this process is that the government, under the 1949 Coastal Protection Act, has no obligation to people who like me chose to live by the sea," she says.

"This extends to compensation. If they choose to abandon the existing defences and homes become at greater risk from flooding, then effectively that's too bad. There is no compensation available and homeowners are instead advised to put their name down for social housing."

She adds: "'I think its disgraceful that someone could work their whole life to buy a home by the sea, basing their decision to live there on the existing defences, something that would have been mentioned in any local authority search, only to then lose that home because of a change in coastal defence policy and have to go back and start all over again."

In the Environment Agency's defence, managed realignment was only ever put forward as a possible option. Where communities are threatened by coastal flooding, both in Romney Marsh and the rest of Kent, the flood defences will be maintained for the time being and in some areas improved.

Chris Blunkell, chairman of the Faversham Road Residents Association, based in Seasalter near Whitstable, feels that in the future

any communities that find themselves affected by changes to sea defences need to be organised.

"Our Association was formed in August 2007 in response to the draft Shoreline Management Plan for North Kent, which proposed managed realignment for our community in as little as 20 years," he explains.

"In response to this, we lobbied our local politicians, including our MP. We got coverage on regional television, Radio 4 and in the local press and began to liaise with other community groups around the UK.

"I really think it was because of all this that we were listened to. We were united and organised and that gave our opinions weight. The result is that consideration of managed realignment has now been extended to a minimum of 50 years and in the meantime, our flood defences are being maintained."

Some change to the county's coastline is inevitable. Those low-lying areas currently unprotected and those in which communities are unaffected will probably be allowed to flood during the coming century. The Kent as we know it today is set to change.

What is less certain is how changes in sea levels will affect populated areas. They enjoy protection now, but in the longer term, who knows what effect climate change will have? Because of this Brigitte Bass believes the needs of coastal communities and householders must be taken into account.

"I know that not everywhere can be protected forever," she says. "We are not unrealistic. But if at some point in the future people are vulnerable to losing their homes, then some degree of compensation needs to be available.

"There needs to be social justice built into the government's coastal policy. Not only do coastal communities need to be part of the decision-making process, we also want some compassion.

"'The sea might want to make people homeless, but that doesn't mean we should necessarily give it what it wants."

Facts and figures

Sea level rise in southern England is about 6mm per year

In the past 10 years, the sea level in Kent rose by 115mm

161,532 people in Kent's population are at risk from coastal flooding

In the 2003/04 financial year, more than 18m was invested in coastal defence locally

The Kent coast is covered by two Shoreline Management Plans and eight coastal strategies.

Varieties of sea defence

Groynes - structures in rock and timber situated to control beach movement and retain material

Breakwater - rock or concrete armour structure designed to protect an area from wave action

Revetment - a sloping surface of stone, concrete or other material to protect the shoreline against wave action

Beach replenishment - the mechanical import of sediment to a beach

Beach Re-profile - the mechanical movement of beach sediment from downdrift to updrift

For further information and all supporting websites, please visit: www.kent-life.co.uk and click on 'links.'

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