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Extract: 'Thanks to climate change, Ireland's coastlines won't be in the same place'

What does the future look like for Ireland’s coasts? Two of the authors of the An Post Irish Book Awards-nominated Coastal Atlas of Ireland explain.

Val Cummins and Robert Devoy

THE COASTAL ATLAS of Ireland, which is nominated in The Journal’s category, Best Irish Published Book in An Post Irish Book Awards this year, encompasses epochs of change in this island’s coastal zone; from the glacial forces that sculpted the coastline millennia ago, to the contemporary impact of humans on the economy, society and environment of the coast as we experience it today.

COP 26 (Conference of the Parties), which concludes this week in Glasgow, focuses attention here and globally on the issues of climate change. Since the Atlas is all about providing and encouraging joined up thinking about our Earth environment, then the editors wanted to share an extract on this climate change theme from the final chapter of the Coastal Atlas: Climate Change and Coastal Futures. The Atlas spans 33 chapters, includes contributions from over 150 authors and has hundreds of maps.

The extract explains why the coast is both a pivotal area and a point in our understanding of the impacts of climate change and how our coast can be a living laboratory for understanding, learning and practising how we can deal with the issues.

The extract below reflects the status of climate science today, including reference to the likely trends and impacts, from global to local scales. While the picture may appear bleak, the Atlas is fundamentally a portrayal of the beauty and significance of the biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by our coastal zone. It is not too late to act, but we must act to conserve and live with our changing coasts with urgency.

Fig_33_00_Cover

The production and consumption of resources by communities living in the world’s coastal zone will be affected increasingly by a broad range of climate change impacts. The seas around Ireland have become warmer, more acidic and less productive in recent decades.

Globally, melting glaciers and ice sheets are causing increased rates of sea-level rise (SLR), and coastal extreme events are becoming more severe. Climate-related events are having widespread impacts on human and natural systems.

These have included losses of life, livestock and livelihoods due to extreme events, such as flooding; and on coasts, by intense storms, particularly in Bangladesh and other very vulnerable low-lying countries.

The globally-averaged, combined land and ocean surface temperature data show now a
warming of over 1o C since 1880. Sea surface temperature is also rising at an
increasing rate. The rate at which this has occurred since 1994 (0.6o C per
decade) is unprecedented in the 158-year observational record. This trend has implications for marine life, particularly the vital areas for biodiversity of coral reefs, ocean chemistry, storm intensity and SLR.

For Ireland, studies indicate that its climate is changing in line with global patterns, although due to its ocean margin location climate responses over the island have lagged behind, but are now catching up.

Temperature records show the clearest trends of this ‘catch up’, indicating that, over the last century, Ireland’s air temperature has also increased by c.1o C (1880–2020).

Fig_33_06_tempprojections Temperature projections

Worst-case scenarios

In the current worst-case scenarios advanced by the IPCC, global mean sea levels are projected to rise by a maximum of 0.8–1m by 2100.

Research indicates that this may be a somewhat conservative view for many world coasts, including those in Ireland. Here, evidence from the past has shown they can experience large and regionally different variations in SLR. Satellite observations also indicate that sea levels around the island have already risen by approximately 0.1–0.12m since the early 1990s, and at increasing rates from c.0.2mm/ yr to current values of c.3–3.5mm/ yr.

Tide gauges situated around our coasts, however, show more local to regional variations in these satellite statistics, and confirm that differences and anomalies in SLR do occur at these scales. In addition to these more general rises in water levels, storm surges can have immediate and significant implications for coastal communities. These create the immediate SLR and associated marine flooding problems for coasts, through the damage to infrastructures, loss of houses and of cliff and shoreline erosion.

By mid-century, accelerating regional SLR, at projected rates of >5–8mm/yr, will become a more significant cause for concern as a control to the island’s coasts. However, the present west to east pattern of high magnitude storm events across Ireland will remain as the most immediate coastal threat; in terms, for example, of flood damage, as well as the breaching and reorganisation of sand systems (eg, beaches, dunes and barriers).

Fig_33_08_SLR

These projections are based on linear modelling approaches, which do not account for apparently randomly-timed causes of SLR, such as catastrophic ice melts (eg, in Greenland and Antarctic ice), or the lagged process, which refers to differential rates of response within environmental systems.

The height of SLR on our coasts is likely, therefore, to be much higher; potentially >2m rise by the early twenty-second century. Such developments, particularly as the result of rapid changes, are well established in long-term Earth records as forming the real pattern in SLR and coastal responses. The repercussions of such large SLR events on unprepared coastal populations and environments around the world will probably put the COVID-19 pandemic crisis into the shade!

The problem for government and coastal managers in Ireland, as elsewhere, is that such
environmental systems’ behaviour is difficult to model with certainty, and so patterns and rates of change are ‘smoothed’ and more conservative values of change accepted.

Thus, the significance of the different approaches and outcomes of modelled projections for most elements of climate change, including SLR, remains controversial. It is important to note though, that the broad trends and patterns of climate change experienced to date have been predicted accurately in models.

Sea level rise

For Ireland, it is well established that SLR will result in a range of increasingly significant coastal -and wider- environmental changes, many of which are already in progress. These include, accelerating coastal erosion, particularly of our long expanses of soft-sedimentary coasts; flooding of land areas, causing the squeeze in living spaces of coastal lands; breaching of coastal defences; loss of wildlife habitat and other environmental amenities.

The effects of these changes will be particularly detrimental for urbanised coasts, such as those of Belfast, Waterford, Galway and others. Both Cork and Dublin are extremely vulnerable to SLR and have a proven record of susceptibility to major flooding events, due their location on the former marshes of estuaries. Some 1,500km of Ireland’s coastline is at risk from erosion, while some 490km are in immediate danger. This will be particularly problematic for the soft-sedimentary cliffs and beaches of the east coast.

Research since the 1990s has shown that the Gulf Stream (and the North Atlantic Drift element of this that affects Ireland), is currently in its weakest state for the last 1,600 years, including the time of the Little Ice Age in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is thought that this is linked at least partially to current climate changes. While the Gulf Stream exerts a major positive temperature influence on Ireland’s climate, scientists are still trying to establish the risks and potential future implications of a sudden, versus a gradual, change in the flow of these warm Atlantic waters.

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Fig_33_10_climatemodels

Other impacts of climate changes for Ireland and its coasts are much clearer and have been outlined in research since 1990 and increasingly since 2010. Illustrations of the model projections, for example, for wind, wave, temperature and rainfall changes in the twenty-first century are presented in this work, with frequent updates of these being published.

These show that the Republic and Northern Ireland, working in both international and national frameworks, have made significant progress in developing an understanding of the range of issues, and the responses needed, to help address this major global problem.

Continued monitoring and modelling of climate changes are required, together with the development of coherent government policies on actions, particularly for the coastal zone. This is taking place in the context of international, and particularly EU, support on how to address the issues effectively. 

Ireland’s coastal future

Ireland’s coasts will be places where people can continue the long-established traditions of deriving benefits from a healthy, thriving, secure and productive environment. We have reasons for hope in the realisation of this vision, but this will involve a major reversal of the current unsustainable trajectory in people’s uses of the environment and its development, both in Ireland and elsewhere. For the island’s marine and coastal zones, this can be achieved by implementing nationally and internationally agreed sustainable development goals and targets.

At the time of writing (June 2020 and again now in November 2021!), with awareness of the scale of the climate, biodiversity and now COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic crises, and their attendant economic and political uncertainties, it is impossible to know what the ‘new normal’ world will look like.

However, shaping our vision for Ireland’s coasts can be a first, and a well-understood and planned step, in establishing a sustainable future. Society, particularly in Europe and the western world, has entered a point in history where there is a recognised need and, perhaps, a once-in-a-generation opportunity, to re-set national and international scale economies.

For Ireland, the island’s coastal and marine resources should be central to deliberations on the New Green Deal proposed by the European Commission, set up to help chart a course into this future. This policy has been promoted in Europe as an important contribution in overcoming climate change and environmental degradation. The United Kingdom’s exit from the EU may add complications to the challenge of achieving cross-border compatibility in marine policy; this is part of the territory of uncertainty!

Major opportunities do exist, however, to stimulate Ireland’s joint economies, for example, through government investment in critical infrastructures, such as support for the development of offshore wind farms as part of the energy transition to renewable sources.

Initiatives, such as plans to establish Marine Protected Areas in Irish territorial waters and to introduce policies aimed at habitat restoration, should deliver win-win situations; MPAs can enhance fish stocks, while habitat restoration projects contribute to biodiversity and blue carbon objectives.

The uncertainties of issues of economics, politics and policy planning, are perplexing. The question, however, of what our future coasts will look like is clearer – they will be different. Under the impacts of climate change the island’s coastlines will not be in the same place and some will look very different. Many beaches and dunes, in particular, will have moved further onto the land, while some coastal territory will have been yielded to the sea.

The plants and animals of Ireland’s coast and marine zones will also be different, sometimes radically so, with a changed complex of species. People will have had to adapt and adjust to these changes of the coast, sometimes having to adopt very different living spaces.

The question of ‘at what cost?’ remains. And, what will people be doing on Ireland’s shores in the future? Well, what they have always done! Coasts have and will always attract people; they give life to people, solace and encouragement. The coastal system will survive change. It is hardwired into its very fabric. But, we can, and must, manage coasts to better advantage for all, for people and the other species that share this precious space with us.

From Coastal Atlas of Ireland, by Val Cummins, Robert Devoy, Barry Brunt, Darius Bartlett and Sarah Kandrot. This book is nominated in the An Post Irish Book Awards, in The Journal’s category Best Irish Published Book. The ceremony takes place on 23 November and you can find out more and check out the full list of nominees at the awards website.

About the author:

Val Cummins and Robert Devoy

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