Sea level rise will put about 200,000 coastal properties in England at risk within 30 years, new data suggests, as the climate crisis takes hold.
These are the homes that may not end up being saved because it would be very expensive to try, by measures such as seawalls and other coastal defences. Some of the areas most at risk include North Somerset, Sedgemoor, Wyre, and Swale.
The study comes after warnings last week from the head of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, that many homes would be impossible or uneconomic to save, and whole communities would have to move inland, which he called “the hardest of all inconvenient truths”.
The value of the homes at risk is in the tens of billions of pounds, and the sea level rises that will bring about the flooding are now almost inevitable, given the increasing pace of climate breakdown.
Sea levels around the English coast are forecast to be about 35cm higher by 2050. Added to this, foreshores are being eroded, which leads to higher waves, especially when there are storms.
The estimate of nearly 200,000 homes and businesses at risk of abandonment comes from researchers at the Tyndall Centre, in the University of East Anglia, published in the peer-review journal Oceans and Coastal Management.
Paul Sayers, the lead author of the paper, said: “Significant sea level rise is now inevitable. 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. 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.”
Bevan told a conference last week: “In the long term, climate change means that some of our communities – both in this country and around the world – cannot stay where they are. That is because while we can come back safely and build back better after most river flooding, there is no coming back for land that coastal erosion has taken away or which a rising sea level has put permanently or frequently under water.”
He added: “In some places the right answer – in economic, strategic and human terms – will have to be to move communities away from danger rather than to try and protect them from the inevitable impacts of a rising sea level.”
Previous estimates of the number of homes at risk were lower, as government estimates have not kept up with climate science. In 2018, the Committee on Climate Change warned that about a third of the UK coastline was in danger.
Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risks at the University of Oxford, who was not involved with the latest study, said: “We need to have honest conversations with coastal communities, that it will simply not be possible to protect every house and business from sea level rise. 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.”