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Coastal Change Dragon is hungry to feed on our fragile coastlines.

Byline: Our Correspondent

The coastline of Wales is under threat from erosion as climate change results in rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms.The Welsh Assembly Government has responded by setting out an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Strategy for Wales. Here coastal zone and marine scientist Ziggy Otto offers some food for thought on its contents and on the changes wrought by the Coastal Change Dragon over the centuries

THE goal of integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) is the creation of resilient coastlines. The concept of "resilience" stands for the ability to deal flexibly with both natural and socio-economic dynamics in the coastal area.

ICZM is the proposed tool for achieving thriving coastal communities along environmentally sustainable coastlines.

The concept of a multi-purpose reef, such as the one put forward for Borth in Ceredigion, is a prime example where ICZM could come into its own. The proposal is an intriguing one and a first for Wales. The potential for combining improvements to coastal protection with enhancements to amenity, while having due regard to the high nature conservation status of the area is worth further investigation.

Finding ways to deal with increasingly severe coastal erosion driven by climate change is becoming a kind of Holy Grail.

The long-term impacts of coastal misuse, plus the very real spectre of rising sea levels and larger and more frequent storms, mean it will be hugely expensive to maintain coastal defences to the extent we have done in the past.

A natural, dynamic shoreline is an extraordinarily valuable environment, as not only is it capable of absorbing and adjusting to wide variations in wave energy (far more efficiently than concrete walls), but it also plays a vital role in sustaining marine and coastal ecosystems. Consequently, it is important to work with rather than against natural processes.

Most Welsh estuaries only came about after the last ice age (some 10,000 years ago), when the Ice Dragon withdrew and drowned coastal valleys in the process.

The Coastal Change Dragon had arrived, and with it rates in sea level rise of at least ten times larger than at present.

Coastal environments, such as salt marshes and dunes, once they have reached an equilibrium with the prevailing wind, waves and tides, can adjust to and keep pace with a continuous rise in sea level, provided sediment is in ample supply and not interrupted by man-made structures. Understandably, the transgression will move actively mobile sedimentary environments inland.

Our forefathers lacked knowledge and foresight, and their over-zealous reclamations and hard defence structures prevent this inland migration in many places today.

There is a need for decision-makers to become more adventurous. In the case of severe coastal erosion, the most sustainable management option, where appropriate, will be to allow "managed retreat", resulting in the tidal inundation of formerly reclaimed land.

Such a dramatic change in attitude, however, will not happen overnight, and I am certainly not an advocate of abandoning our coasts. It would not simply be a case of leaving nature to its own devices after centuries of human interference: it could unleash a new, "genetically modified" Coastal Change Dragon, which could result in catastrophic losses of coastal areas.

The most likely route to success is a gradual release and calculated freeing up of carefully selected parts of the coastline, so coasts can find their equilibrium and adjust - with or without human intervention - to changing climatic and hydrodynamic conditions.

Unfortunately, the expertise of "enlightened" coastal scientists is still not considered fully when management decisions are made. "Holding the line" will not help preserve coastal habitats, let alone result in resilient coastlines.

We cannot allow our coasts and estuaries to become removed from natural processes. There is nothing natural about an environment frozen in time and space, unable to respond to factors which have shaped its existence in the first place, and which should be able to continue. Every natural environment evolves.

As a result, one coastal habitat will naturally metamorphose into another; for instance mudflats evolve into salt marshes by sediment build-up and plant colonisation, and there are no dunes without wide fronting beaches as the wind at low tide picks up dry sand to "feed" the dunes.

Scientists have mastered many natural phenomena in the past, not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic failed, as it has never tried to cast a spell over nature.

But perhaps we are still looking for that spell - the magic which lets us impose our will on the environment so we can design coastlines as we think they should be.

Designer coastlines have been a curse since Roman times, as evidenced by the now actively eroding Welsh coastline of the Severn Estuary. We are still stubbornly trying to control nature, an outdated attitude born of 20th century achievements and man's striving towards maximum convenience.

We exacerbate coastal problems by trying to keep what is not ours to keep, and what undoubtedly will have to be surrendered some time in the future.

Will we ever be able to return coastlines and estuaries back to a state from where they can continue to evolve naturally again?

Evolution is a gradual process, changing habitats into different and usually more complex or better forms. Coastal managers still do not have the spectrum of ideas needed to bring about resilient coastal zones. It needs to be as broad as nature itself, otherwise we will never be able to work holistically with natural processes.

Dr Siegbert ( Ziggy) Otto is a lecturer in the Coastal Zone & Marine Environment Research Unit of Pembrokeshire College at the University of Glamorgan in Haverfordwest
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 15, 2007
Words:938
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