150,000 – 200,000 homes and businesses in England at risk of sea level rise from the 2050s

Up to 200,000 English properties are at risk of sea level rise from the 2050s shows a study published today by Paul Sayers an Affiliate of the Tyndall Centre UEA.

Sea level rise caused by climate change is putting nearly 200,000 English properties at risk of being abandoned from the 2050s according to a study published today (15 June 2022) in the peer-reviewed journal Oceans and Coastal Management, led by Paul Sayers, an expert on flood and coastal risks who works with the Tyndall Centre at University of East Anglia and advises the Climate Change Committee.

Mean sea levels around England could be up to 30-35cm higher by 2050 than their historical level and will continue to rise as increasing global temperatures, due to greenhouse gas emissions, melts glaciers and ice caps and causes ocean waters to expand as they warm.

In addition, foreshores are at risk of being eroded, which can further deepen the water at the coast leading to larger waves reaching the shore. The combination of sea-level rise and larger waves will greatly increase the number of properties at risk of flooding.

Investment in improved sea walls and other defences will protect many of the properties at risk, but this will not be affordable or possible everywhere. For the first time, the new study calculates how many English properties will be threatened with coastal flooding but where the costs of improving defences may be too high or technically impossible for the government to continue to protect communities (given current funding regimes).

The researchers found that, by the 2050s and through to 2100, 120,000-160,000 properties along the English coast are at risk of relocation due to sea level rise, in addition to 30-35,000 properties that had already been identified as at risk from sea level rise (see page 5 of the study, para 5.2).

This means the number of properties at risk is five times higher than suggested within current shoreline planning documents, and many communities that face an uncertain future haven’t yet been identified. In 2018 the CCC identified a further 100,000 properties that would be at risk from sliding into the sea due to coastal erosion – meaning around 300,000 properties are at risk from sea level rise and coastal erosion in total. This analysis found that around 30% of local authority assessments, known as Shoreline Management Plans, which recommend ‘Hold-the-Line’ in the longer term – implying that sea defences will be built and maintained along the shoreline – may be increasingly difficult to achieve as sea levels rise due to cost or feasibility constraints, covering 1,700km of the English coast.

Which local authorities have the most properties at risk? 

Sea level rise presents a challenge for all coastal regions of the England, but this is likely to be greatest in areas such as: North Somerset, Wyre, Swale, Tendring, Maldon, Suffolk Coastal, North Norfolk, Cornwall, Medway and Sedgemoor.  Decisions on precisely which, and how many, of these properties and communities will have to move will depend on government policy.

The study does not suggest the 150-200,000 properties at increased risk will be lost – many will continue to be protected – but we are highlighting the importance of accepting the scale of challenge and setting out a long-term plan.  A challenge also recognised in the recent speech by James Bevan’s (the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency).

The analysis is necessarily national and does not take account of local issues that will influence the local choices made. Hence no attempt is made to identify specific communities that may be affected. Instead, the focus is on the adaptation challenge we face, and the need for an honest national debate about how we respond to these changes. It is this debate that the paper encourages.”

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