flash flood

Rising sea levels put 200,000 English homes at risk

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Nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in England may be lost to the sea within the next 30 years, according to recently published research.

The predicted rise of sea levels might have placed a third of the English coast at risk.

A study published in the journal Oceans And Coastal Management has compared the rising risk of coastal flooding with existing policies for managing the floods, concluding that nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in England are currently at risk of being lost forever to the seas.

According to the research, these properties would have to be abandoned due to the high costs of putting protections such as seawalls and coastal defences. Some of the areas most at risk include North Somerset, Sedgemoor, Wyre and Swale. The figure does not include the 30,000 to 35,000 properties which already have a policy in place to realign the coast.

"It just won't be possible to hold the line all around the coast," said Paul Sayers, author of the report. Sayers works with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia and advises the government's Climate Change Committee.

The study comes after the head of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, warned that climate change is likely to force whole communities to move inland, a situation he described as “the hardest of all inconvenient truths”.

Global warming has significantly increased the likelihood of extreme weather events, and scientists have, for decades, warned about the dangers of sea-level rise caused by the melting of the ice sheets.

When it comes to the impact on the UK, experts have predicted England could face around 35cm (14in) of sea-level rise compared to historic levels by 2050 and is nearly certain to see close to 1m (3ft) of sea-level rise by the end of the century.

Faced with these challenges, the UK government will have to make a decision regarding whether to defend the affected properties against the sea by building and maintaining defences or to realign the shoreline and move properties. These decisions will affect at least a thousand miles of the English coast (1,600-1,900km).

The analysis highlights that those local authorities with the largest challenge in responding to sea-level rise, through to the 2050s and 2080s, are likely to be those of North Somerset, Wyre, Swale, Tendring, Maldon, Suffolk Coastal, North Norfolk, Cornwall, Medway, and Sedgemoor, although it did not take into account the presence of nationally important infrastructure such as nuclear power plants, whose protection would be a priority. 

“For many of our larger cities at the coast protection will continue to be provided but for some coastal communities this may not be possible,” Sayers added. “We need a serious national debate about the scale of the threat to these communities and what represents a fair and sustainable response, including how to help people to relocate.”

Previously published estimates of the number of homes at risk were lower, as they have not been updated with the acceleration of sea-level rise. In 2018, the Committee on Climate Change warned that about a third of the UK coastline was in danger.

Responding to the study, Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risks at the University of Oxford, underlined the need to have "honest conversations with coastal communities" about these risks. 

“These changes are coming sooner than we might think and we need to plan now for how we can adjust, including a nationwide strategic approach to deciding how to manage the coast sustainably in the future,” he said. 

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