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Adapting to a Changing Coastline

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Whenever I think about spending time at the seaside I'm transported down memory lane. The happy days spent as a child playing at Dawlish Warren in Devon, the wide open spaces of the Norfolk beaches or spending time at Lyme Regis with the kids.

Millions of us spend a fair amount of time daydreaming about being at the coast. Living by the sea with those views into what appears to be infinity and the dreamy sunrises and sunsets has enchanted generations.

And yet that sense of things always being the same at the seaside, a constant in a turning world, seems to be changing. Yes geography lessons at school taught us about the process of a constantly changing coastline around the United Kingdom and how the coast evolves. However what has become a game-changer is the speed of change, which is starting to accelerate.

Two figures stand out for me to illustrate the challenges ahead and why we need a plan now for managing a changing coastline. During the 20th Century sea levels across the world rose by 19 centimetres and in the century ahead the figure could be up to four times higher. The recently published climate change report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted some of the challenges ahead facing coastal communities as sea levels rise.

The 2013/2014 UK winter also clearly demonstrated that as well as the long-term pressures of sea level rise there is the immediate challenge of extreme weather. For two months much of the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland was battered by high tides and ferocious storms. Beaches vanished, footpaths were washed away and cliffs crumbled into the sea - creating dramatic pictures exemplified by the railway hanging over the crashing waves of the English Channel at Dawlish in Devon.

Many coastal places cared for by the National Trust and loved my millions of us have seen years' worth of erosion in just a few months or sometimes in an afternoon. With predictions that extreme weather is likely to become the norm in the years ahead now is the time to start planning for the future. Delaying difficult decisions could make things a lot harder down the line but if communities, Government and coastal landowners come together then solutions can be found. That's why adapting to a changing coastline, as shown in a new National Trust report (Shifting Shores -adapting to change), is essential if we are to live with change.

As an island nation(s) we have a natural inclination to want to defend our coastline against the power of nature. Hard defences do have their place but we need to think about how we can, as a society, work with nature. It sounds like a cliché but the reality is that in the long run it will be more effective as a way of adapting to the changes coming our way.

Take Rhossili on Gower. Recently voted as one of the best beaches in the world the winter storms have taken their toil on the footpath that hundreds of thousands of people use every year to get on to the miles of golden sands. The last fifty metres of the footpath were washed away making accessible difficult. But rather than put the footpath back the way it was the plan is to put in a more flexible and light-touch footpath that can be repaired easily and withstand all that the elements can through at it.

If you think of something that symbolises the seaside you're pretty likely to settle on the 'beach hut'. Dotted around the coastline beach huts have been a part of family days out at the beach since the Victorian times. However as the coast erodes they become more vulnerable to the forces of nature. At Studland in Dorset there are 275 beach huts - many of which have already had to be moved three times in recent years and some are precariously close to the water's edge. As part of a wider project between the National Trust and Environment Agency to manage this changing coastline students from the Arts University Bournemouth are looking at designs for future-proof beach huts that can withstand storms and are easy enough to move quickly.

By thinking ahead and planning for the future we can adapt to the realities of climate change and extreme weather.

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