Removing Sea Defences Could Reduce Impact of Flooding on Coastal Regions

It might sound counter-intuitive, but a new study has shown that removing sea defences and allowing natural erosion may in fact in times of rising sea level flooding.

Robert Nicholls, Professor of Coastal Engineering at the University of Southampton and co-author of this study, says the research shows that protecting our coastline from erosion simply has to be balanced against the oncoming impacts of coastal flooding predicted in a warming world.

Coastal Defences Not Defending All Coasts

“The trade-off between protecting cliffs and their role in naturally nourishing our protective beaches will lead to difficult decisions, especially as sea levels are rising and finance is in short supply. This requires strategic planning for the future.”

Professor Nicholls was part of a research team from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research which focused their attention 72km stretch of shoreline along the East Anglian coast.

There they detailed the interconnection between erosion and flooding and found that in some cases it is actually more sensible to allow the natural erosion to reduce the impact of flooding.

The UK is a perfect example for what can happen when coastal defences are placed without thinking of the whole picture. Over the last century areas of the UK coast have been artificially defended while at the same time hurting beaches nearby.

The man-made intervention of coastal defences actually increases the risk of flooding in low lying coastal settlements where beaches normally act as a natural flooding defence.

A similar view was espoused by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, associate professor of landscape architecture in CCNY’s Spitzer School of Architecture in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. 

“Coastal areas typify the environmental challenge our society faces – their beauty and economic opportunities attracts settlement and they include some of our most important ecosystems and most productive farmland,” said Richard Dawson, Professor of Earth Systems Engineering at Newcastle University and lead author of this study. “Yet this exposes us to hazards such as erosion and flooding which will be exacerbated by sea-level rise.”

“Clearly we can’t, and wouldn’t want to, remove all our sea defences, but there are difficult trade-offs to be made in prioritising coastal management measures.”

“Our research provides a common platform to get all parties round the table – local residents, policy-makers, insurers, scientists and farmers to name but a few – to understand each other’s perspectives, discuss potential compensatory arrangements, and collectively decide the best way forward.”

Source: University of Southampton
Image Source: Andrew Bowden

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