It’s a brisk and sunny wintery afternoon in Glasgow’s West End. Amidst the bustling activity of the world’s biggest climate conference COP26, Vango heads to the secluded cloisters of Glasgow’s very own Hogwarts – The University of Glasgow – to catch up with some of the team behind the scientific research that generated our recent coastal erosion map.
It’s great to meet you all, why don’t we start with some background about yourselves?
Larissa – I am a Professor of geomorphology at the University of Glasgow, I’m from British Columbia, Canada originally and I spent my undergraduate years exploring forests and mountains as a geomorphologist working alongside botanists and wildlife specialists. I spent my leisure time backpacking, cycling, kayaking, canoeing and wild camping in Canada’s wilderness and was a trained mountain rescue volunteer. I came from Canada to the University of Oxford to do my PhD with world-leading experts in biogeomorphology, was a fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and also worked at the Environment Agency before taking up my post here in Glasgow.
Jim – I am the Principal Investigator of the Dynamic Coast project, Professor at the University of Glasgow and a coastal geomorphologist. My PhD was conducted in the Antarctic, I used Vango Force 10 tents from 1974 onwards many times on expeditions and at that time they were great tents for withstanding the various harsh weather conditions! I’ve worked extensively all over the world including New Zealand, Egypt, the Caribbean, Arctic Norway and Iceland identifying how coasts react to climate drivers such as climate change.
Freya – I’m from the north of Scotland originally, I studied geology and geography at the University of Edinburgh. My background is researching everything from Himalayan landslides, to flooding in the Southern Mexican hinterlands and then I moved to Glasgow to work on the Dynamic Coast project. My work always has a facet of using remote sensing data to analyse patterns on the Earth’s surface. I’m a super avid hiker, and I was born in Brisbane so I have a lot of family and friends that live close to the coast and are affected by rising sea levels.
Why is highlighting Coastal Erosion important?
Jim- They key thing is before 2017 we had no grasp of the extent of rate of coastal erosion around the Scottish coast. There was no strategic overview and from a development point of view that is a major drawback because there was no way of assessing the impact of coastal erosion on the infrastructure here in Scotland. Dynamic Coast looked at how the coastline was changing, with respect to erosion and flooding and modelling that change into the future.
Erosion affects 46% of our soft shores, up almost 40% since the 2017 survey, and with an average erosion rate of almost 0.5m/yr it’s important to identify what that will mean for the future of coastal communities and assets. The Dynamic Coast data allows us to consider the infrastructure, buildings and towns affected, identify how many kilometres of coast might be lost, and cost up how much it would be to protect that land.
The Scottish Government’s net zero message is hugely important but we also need to think strategically about how we might adapt to current and future coastal erosion and enhance resilience and make our coastal land use more sustainable than it is at present.
Larissa – Terms many of us heard during COP26 were adaption and mitigation.Mitigation arethings we can do as individuals or society as a whole to reduce the amount of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases we emit in the atmosphere eg. driving less, being more energy efficient and changing our energy sources. Adaptation is learning to live with the climate change which we are already experiencing and will continue into the future. For example, even with net zero sea level will continue to rise, so we are already committed to a certain amount of coastal erosion. So it’s really about learning to accept we are in a period of coastal erosion and thinking about ways in which we can adapt, and so when we produced the 10 example wild camping sites with Vango, it was about illustrating and raising awareness of the more extensive coastal changes that we are likely to see over the next few years and decades. The exciting thing for me about the collaboration with Vango is that the map the messages behind it, were widely published in many camping, landscape and recreation facing media sources, as well as local and national papers around Scotland.
How global is the issue of coastal erosion?
Larissa – This is a global problem, all over the world we see slightly different sea level rises that affect the rates of erosion of natural assets such as beaches and dunes, as well as key infrastructure (buildings, transportation networks) around these places. And predictions of sea level rise are getting worse – each time the international reports on the state of the climate are produced every few years the global projections for sea level rise risks increase. New and authoritative data from the University of Colorado shows that sea level rises on the Eastern sea board of America is experiencing exponentially high sea level rises. Erosion rates are strongly correlated to increases in sea level rise, so these data mean erosion risks will amplify as sea level rise increases, as our new Dynamic Coast erosion maps show.
Jim – Yes, there’s lots of hotspots around the world, the east coast of North America especially Florida, the Arctic, Australia and low-lying Pacific Island nations all face major challenges. Even places like the Sunshine Coast in Australia numerous multi-storey buildings were built metres from a now rapidly eroding beach and face major challenges in the future. During the Commonwealth games in 2018 many of these very beaches had to be artificially refilled with sand because of critical levels of beach loss due to coastal erosion.
How can we make change happen, and is there anything people can do that might help the issue of coastal erosion?
Jim – People are going to have to learn to adapt and to resist any developments that are too close to the coast.Looking to the future, if we want to build an asset that is at the coast then we will have to think about ways to make it demountable and move it to a less risky location. Several of the new golf courses are demountable so you can move them in land if the rise of coastal erosion begins to kick in. We can also oppose near-coast and development that is proposed close to the shore by writing to our local MSP’s, but the key is that coastal planners need to be allowed to follow National Planning Guidelines and be free to use their professional judgement, independent of local political pressure.
Larissa – Yes, a lot has to be said for adapting to the changes which are inevitable in the future of coastal communities. Things like building holiday cottages and business’ which are demountable and can be relocated to other places – the public can support this through engagement with planning processes and local development plan consultations, to make it easier for innovative, climate smart steps to be taken and allow future generations more flexibility. This will help rural communities maintain amenities and business continuity, in a way that can more readily accommodate future coastal erosion and flooding. Change is natural part of life, and change is amplified by climate change so we need to be more flexible in our mindset.
There also needs to be more emphasis on educational materials in schools and wider communities – raising awareness of the intrinsic value of beauty spots in Scotland is very important to enact change. This includes raising awareness of users of fragile natural landscapes, like dunes or machair, and about how they can help reduce erosion risk by modifying their activities in these landscapes.
Freya – Young people have a huge perception of the climate emergency. They have the knowledge, they have the information, but I think it’s about empowering them and giving them a platform to enable them to drive change. Schools deciding to switch the curriculum over to COP26 during the climate change conference is the kind of action which will help the next generation to enact change.
For example, on a day to day level, sand dune management is very important. Respecting the fragility of dune systems and protecting them is very important. As soon as you start introducing human disturbances such as people’s driving cars onto dunes or running down them, the damage can completely disturb the balance of the whole ecosystem. That can then cause a site for a potential ‘blow out’ – which is when a storm comes through and the dunes are damaged to an extent that it cannot protect against flooding.
What’s the next stage of the research?
Jim – The Scottish Government is now putting together the methodology to allow funds to be distributed to local authorities to start the production of adaptational plans, with the data and methodology springing directly from our research. £12 million will be distributed to local authorities to allow them to start to figure out how to adapt to coastal erosion – it’s about getting the importance of the Dynamic Coast research across and then using it to get adaptation going on the ground.
Larissa – During the project we also looked at social vulnerability in conjunction with coastal erosion for the first time, and that needs to be looked at in more detail. It becomes about community decision-making as a social process, how you have those conversations in a way that empowers local people. It’s also about many different disciplines coming together to co-develop adaptation plans with communities, as you need all different perspectives to imagine different futures. We need to be creative and inventive to help society implement adaptation plans in a socially just way. Alongside this you need strong, coastal climate change aware policies such as local development plans that can reduce new development in at-risk locations – the current draft of Edinburgh’s city plan is an excellent example of this.
Freya – I’m developing ways to improve how we gather and analyse data on coastal change. Recent work by a team of Australian researchers looked at how we can use satellite imagery to automatically draw a boundary between water and sand. My PhD focusses on putting together a software that will make use of automatically extracted shorelines and vegetation boundaries at the coast (rather having to do the process by hand or in the field). Using regular, freely available satellite imagery, we can then predict short-term coastal erosion based on how the coast has been changing in the recent past.
For more information about the Dynamic Coasts research click here.
You can see more from UofG's Professor Larissa Naylor (pictured above), as she reflects on 30 years of activism in this short video 'Inspiring the Next Generation of Climate Leaders.'