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'Dealing With Risk and Uncertainty in Coastal Environments'

'Dealing With Risk and Uncertainty in Coastal Environments'

A one-day workshop

Cambridge, Wednesday 22nd March 2000

Scientists, engineers, government officials, and conservationists met in March 2000 to discuss ways of dealing with the social, economic, and scientific risks and uncertainties of our constantly changing coastline.

The future of our coast is highly uncertain: the dynamics of this unpredictable environment are not well known and future environmental, social and political changes are poorly predicted. While sea levels are rising and parts of the East Anglian coast (such as Happisburgh in Norfolk), for example, are eroding at a rate of several meters per year, other areas of the coast (such as the saltmarshes and some beaches of North Norfolk) are areas of sediment deposition. Unless we understand what drives these natural processes at both the local and regional scales and unless we learn to communicate and deal with the risks and uncertainties of coastal dynamics in the process, our efforts to plan and manage sustainable coastal development have little chance of succeeding.

Many of the social and economic problems caused by coastal hazards such as erosion or flooding result from a lack of communication between scientists, conservationists, engineers, planners, and local residents. The purpose of the meeting at Cambridge, organised by CoastNET and the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit (CCRU), was to ensure that knowledge is shared by a wide range of interested parties so that decision making and planning at the coast has a greater chance of leading to sustainable long-term solutions.

The workshop was attended by just under 50 delegates and provided a unique opportunity to re-establish communication channels between individual coastal stakeholders and focused on the ways in which scientists, engineers, coastal managers, and conservationists have been, and are dealing with risk and uncertainty on the East Anglian coast. Keynote papers ranged from current understandings of the southern North Sea and the expected impact of global environmental change to changing approaches to coastal management and the development of policy.

Case study workshops took place in the afternoon with the aim to illustrate the challenges of dealing with risk and uncertainty in the fields of coastal 'Strategic Planning' (example of Jaywick, Essex), 'Nature Conservation' (example of Brancaster, Norfolk), 'Engineering and Natural Processes' (example of Happisburgh, Norfolk), and 'Industry and Infrastructure' (example of Queen Elizabeth Dock.Reclamation, Hull).

The workshops addressed a wide range of questions such as:

  • Is a more holistic view required? (what is conservation gain/loss when impacted by natural coastal processes?)
  • Is there a basic philosophical problem with 'environmental compensation' (e.g. the Natura 2000 Agenda)?
  • Is a wider geographical view required when considering coastal environmental impacts / risks ?
  • Should scientific information be more readily available and used?
  • How does one value communities / socio-economics?
  • How can we make decisions on short time scales when the inherent time scales of natural coastal change go beyond 50 years?

A series of key issues were identified in the Plenary Session of the meeting:

  1. The difficulty of addressing pressing short-term ecological, social, political, and economic issues in the face of long-term natural change was emphasised several times throughout the discussion. The case studies addressed in the workshops illustrated that risk in coastal environments is often spread over a period of time beyond our current legislative or political ('decision-making') time-frame. The discrepancy between the temporal nature of problems associated with coastal change (50 years or more) and the time-scale of political and legislative frameworks (2-4 years) poses a significant challenge to sustainable coastal management.
  2. Aspects of the discussion focused on the discrepancy between different spatial scales of importance in coastal zone planning. Several overlapping boundaries exist in the coastal planning framework, related to legislation, politics, and natural coastal processes. While it was recognised by many that the introduction of Shoreline Management Plans constitutes a significant advancement in coastal planning and management in the UK, it was pointed out that, in some cases, such as Jaywick, such plans need to be inked into coastal management at a more regional basis. There is thus a need to reconsider the way in which coastal problems are addressed at the spatial scale.
  3. A strong theme related to the issue of 'education' and 'communication'. While there is a need to inform and educate certain groups of coastal users (e.g. prospective house buyers) about the risks of coastal environments, it was felt by many that there is an even stronger need to establish two-way communication channels between government authorities, non-government organisation, and local stakeholders and communities.
  4. Another key issue related to the existence of large scientific uncertainties (with respect to, for example, predicting sea-level rise or the occurrence and/or impact of extreme erosion/flood events). The monitoring of coastal environments is often linked to individual case studies or Environmental Impact Assessment studies and thus occurs increasingly on a local and ad-hoc basis. In addition to the need for strategic long-term monitoring of key coastal parameters, it is necessary to make existing scientific information more accessible.
  5. Finally, the discussion illustrated that it may be necessary to address a range of much broader political, anthroplogical, sociological and philosophical issues in order to deal with risk in coastal environments in a sustainable way. Such issues include, for example, the ways in which ecological, social or cultural systems are being valued and thus how they could be compensated for if they were lost due to natural or human induced processes at the coast.

For further information about the meeting, or to be added to the mailing list for future meetings on similar issues, please contact Dr I Möller, Deputy Director, Cambridge Coastal Research Unit, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Place, Cambridge CB2 3EN, email:, tel: 01223 339821.

CoastNET the coastal network

CoastNET is a membership body linking together individuals and organisations involved in practical coastal management in the UK. Established in 1995 and funded by the Countryside Commission, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage it provides an active, forward-looking network dedicated to servicing the needs of coastal field staff. With over 400 members and affiliates and over 3000 individual contacts it represents the largest pool of practical experience in coastal management in the UK. CoastNET aims to: provide opportunities for coastal field staff and managers on the coast of the UK to network effectively; improve the ways in which the UK's coastal heritage is managed; ensure that the practical experience of coastal managers and field staff contributes to the formulation of UK coastal zone policy.

Further information can be found at: