August 3, 2006

UK’s Jurassic Coast feels heat of climate change

By Ben Hirschler

LYME REGIS (Reuters) - The quaint seaside town of Lyme
Regis with its narrow, winding streets seems a million miles
from the melting polar ice caps or the flooded coral atolls of
the Pacific.

But the exposed steel piling behind the promenade and the
newly reinforced beach, designed to stop Lyme from crumbling
into the sea, show that this, too, is a corner of the planet
threatened by climate change.

Many scientists reckon the world is warming due to the
"greenhouse effect" caused by emissions from fossil fuels
trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The heat wave currently sweeping across large parts of
Europe and North America is seen by some as a sign of climate

For the past year Lyme, made famous as a setting for Jane
Austen's novel "Persuasion" and John Fowles's "The French
Lieutenant's Woman," has been in the grip of gut-wrenching
engineering works.

Vacationers lounging on the new beach may not realize it,
but Lyme, on the southwest coast of England, sits in the middle
of one of the most unstable stretches of coastline in the
country with a long history of landslips.

Its very instability is the reason this section of
England's southern coast has become known as the Jurassic
Coast, in recognition of the rich seam of fossils that are
uncovered when cliffs, eroded by the waves, collapse.

Now experts say the pace of landfalls is set to accelerate
as global warming leads to rising sea levels and fiercer winter
storms battering the fragile blue lias or sea limestone cliffs.

Locals got a taste of things to come in January this year
when three-quarters of a million tons of rock and clay fell on
neighboring Charmouth beach, stranding a handful of people, in
the biggest landslip for 30 years.


In a bid to hold back the waves, Lyme has embarked on a 20
million pounds ($37 million) program to double the length of
rock armor at the end of the ancient Cobb harbor, put more sand
and shingle on the beach and stabilize the sea front.

The work has been noisy, dirty and disruptive but Mayor Ken
Whetlor reckons the town has no choice.

"You have to put up with that if you want to save your
town," he said.

"With the forecasts of rising sea levels, the defenses we
had in place would not have lasted the course. The decision was
either to save this heritage coast or let it go."

Just 5 miles along the coast, the National Trust charity,
Britain's largest owner of coastline, is beating a retreat on
Golden Cap, the highest point on England's southern coast.

With the rate of land erosion expected to increase to more
than 6-1/2 feet a year, the Trust has decided to move its
cliff-top path up to 27 yards inland.

Over the next century, the organization expects more than
half the 700 miles of coastline in its care will face similar
serious erosion damage.

Britons, none of whom live more than 75 miles from the sea,
will have to learn to live with the growing impact of climate
change, according to the National Trust's assistant director of
policy Ellie Robinson.

"We need to explain to people that it is happening here and
now in the UK," she said.

"It's not just about ice caps and Bangladesh and hurricanes
in the U.S. and drought in Africa. It is happening here at home
and we can't kid ourselves that it's just the rest of the world
that will be affected."


On England's east coast, other towns are also under threat
and farmland is being lost to the sea. Climate change here adds
to the gradual sinking of the southeast corner of Britain as
the Earth's crust continues to adjust to the end of the last
ice age 10,000 years ago.

Some larger East Coast towns will be protected, as Lyme has
been, but smaller communities such as the Norfolk village of
Happisburgh are not lucky enough to be given extra sea defenses
and may go under. It is a policy known as managed retreat.

The government may be investing to defend notable coastal
towns like Lyme, Brighton, Blackpool, Bournemouth and
Scarborough but Environment Minister Ian Pearson argues it is
unrealistic to try and maintain the status quo everywhere.

Such a selective approach angers home owners in Happisburgh
and other small places, who fear they will be left without
compensation if their houses tumble into the waves.