If you live in the North East, you’re bound to have at least one special memory of being close to water. Whether it’s walking beside the River Tees or building sand castles in Whitley Bay, you’ll know that the coasts and river valleys are the pride of the region.
Last winter, however, living close to water suddenly no longer seemed quite so desirable. Heavy rain, strong winds and high waves, along with the largest tidal surge in 60 years on the east coast, resulted in flooding and coastal damage. In the South homes were destroyed and the Somerset Levels were swamped. Although we fared much better in the North East, Newcastle’s Quayside experienced floods in early December and there was flash flooding in Teesdale – and things could get much worse.
‘Everybody who lives close to the sea needs to be concerned about rising sea levels,’ says Ian Shennan, Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University. ‘Not that flooding is anything new,’ he adds. ‘If you go back through the historical documents, flooding of the estuaries of Northumberland was pretty common in the 15th and 16th century, it’s just our memories are pretty short. We forget about even really big events if we’ve not experienced them in our own lifetime.’ Ian is a member of the university’s Climate Change Network, a research group comprising academics with backgrounds ranging from Earth Sciences to English Literature. One major strand of his research is sea level changes around the UK.
According to Professor Shennan, we have always had to adapt to the whims of nature, but our expectations are changing. ‘In Roman and even pre-Roman times people have been trying to make their valuable land safer from extreme floods,’ he explains. ‘But in the 21st century we expect to almost control the environment we live in.’ Unfortunately, there is only so much we can do to anticipate flooding. ‘The more money and the more engineering you throw at it, the more likelihood there is that you will be protected, but at some stage something may happen which is bigger than what you’ve planned for.’
Currently, sea levels are rising at a rate of around 3mm each year worldwide, and it’s the result of global warming. ‘One component is the melting of ice sheets and glaciers in different parts of the world, which means more water going into the global ocean,’ Ian explains. ‘But it’s not distributed evenly either,’ he adds. ‘That will depend on ocean currents. There is also thermal expansion of the surface layers of the oceans, because as you heat water it expands a little bit, so any rise in temperature would also expand the volume of the water as well.’
Of course, in the North East, we don’t have large, low-lying areas like the Somerset Levels or the Fenlands. However, areas further inland have suffered from flooding in recent history, notably when the banks of the River Wansbeck burst in Morpeth in 2008, 40 years after the last major flood in 1968. Hexham and Newburn have also suffered from flooding in the past few years. Last month, a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the UK is likely to see a rise in floods and coastal storms as a result of global warming, and, frighteningly, this seems to be our fault. ‘The vast majority of environmental and climate scientists agree that there is a human contribution to global warming and the 20th and 21st century rate of sea level rise,’ says Ian. ‘There are some people who disagree with that but I think the balance of opinion would be that there is a human influence.’
One person who has a particular reason to be concerned is David Steel, who spends his days not just by the sea but actually surrounded by it. As Ranger for the Farne Islands in Northumberland, David spends over nine months on the islands every year. He’s just returned to the islands for the 2014 season, and fortunately they are all still in one piece. ‘We experienced the storm surge last December but since then it’s been quite a mild winter, which is good for the sea birds because they’ve been having some tough times of recent.’
The Farne Islands are famous for their proliferation of sea birds – the rocks come alive with the twittering of 23 species. One of the tasks for Farne Island Rangers is to keep track of bird populations. ‘We look at how many pairs are breeding so we can compare ourselves with other seabird colonies around the UK, and we can see if our birds are doing well or doing badly compared to everyone else. ‘It’s a bleak picture,’ he says.
Last March was a particularly bad day at the office, when around 3,500 puffins washed up dead between Scarborough and Aberdeen, many on the Farne Islands. Bad weather makes it difficult for the birds to hunt their prey, and storms can flood their underground burrows. David is also concerned about Shags. ‘They stay around the Farne Islands all year round, they’re the only seabirds that do. About 45 percent of shags died last winter, and that was duplicated across the east coast of the UK. It was a pretty tough time for seabirds in general.’
However, the generally mild weather has resulted in a few surprises too, with the puffins returning to the island earlier than expected, and some surprisingly early butterfly sightings. ‘It’s very topsy-turvy,’ says David. But topsy-turvy can also be worrying. ‘Wildlife can adapt to slow change because obviously that’s just evolution, but these changes are occurring too quickly.’
David is the Farne Islands’ longest-serving ranger and 2014 will be his 14th year in the job, so he has been able to see climate changes first-hand. ‘In that time I’ve started to see wetter and windier summers, which is having a big knock-on effect to the breeding success of the seabirds. For example 2012 was a very wet summer and some of the puffins on one island, which has got 12,000 pairs, didn’t raise any chicks, as the eggs and the chicks drowned. That’s the breeding season wiped out. That means a lot for future generations.’ David relates this directly to climate change. ‘Seabirds are a good barometer of climate change. It’s happening, what we can’t agree on is how quickly it’s happening.’
Despite the changes in climate, one thing that isn’t changing is the desirability of living close to water. Many of us have our hearts on a cottage by the sea, and David loves where he lives. ‘It’s so varied, every day it is different. You feel alive and more healthy by living near the coast.’ David grew up in Durham, but has fond memories of coastal trips. ‘I remember going with my family to South Shields, and occasional day trips down to places like Scarborough and Whitby. I remember the hustle and bustle of Whitby with the boats coming in and out, and having fish and chips.’ Ian believes that the coast will always be attractive to people. ‘I think people find the coast a very restful or spiritual or enlightening place to be, whether it’s blowing a big storm or it’s a hot summer’s day.’ Ian does not, however, live by the coast. ‘I’m quite inland at 200m above sea level,’ he admits. ‘But that’s not because I think there’ll be 200m of sea level rise!’ he adds quickly.
Professor Shennan believes that events such as Earth Day, a day of awareness and lobbying about environmental issues each April 22nd, help raise awareness of environmental issues. ‘I think anything that increases people’s knowledge and understanding of these processes, away from the alarmist literature that you can see in some social media and some newspapers – anything that can get a reasoned and balanced portrayal of sometimes complex scientific evidence – is important,’ he says.
And to those who dismiss the efforts to reduce climate change he says this: You have to decide – do you just sit back and accept everything or do you try and contribute?’
What Is Earth Day?
• The first Earth Day took place in 1970 in the US, and today almost 200 countries worldwide participate.
• The original event was conceived as an environmentalist protest modelled on anti-Vietnam War protests.
• The aim of Earth Day is to raise awareness about pollution, global warming and other environmental issues.
• Because of the chosen date of April 22nd, which is also the birthday of Vladimir Lenin, some early opponents of the event denounced it as covert Communist propaganda.
• Last year more than one billion people took part in activities which range from planting trees to lobbying governments.