Sunday, 3 August 2014

In danger of re-inventing the wheel?

I recently reviewed a paper that presented some very basic information as a presentation of new ideas for climate change adaptation. I was really rather critical, but as two other reviewers were apparently happy with it I chose not to make a fuss and let the paper go forward. It has since been accepted.

This episode got me wondering whether there was a real danger that the work of coastal managers and engineers over the past 25 years is in danger of being re-presented by another body as radical new thoughts? If so, it seems to me that there is a risk that it will precipitate a new round of research by a different group of researchers, re-working basic science that has been the foundation for 25+ years of strategic coastal management. That worries me, as there is little enough research money in the pot at the moment anyway, and any available money needs to focus on the big questions for the future.

Thoughts that immediately come to mind include:
  • How to improve public understanding of what will happen with rising sea levels and its implications for society.
    There are two contexts: undeveloped societies where huge money has not been invested in coastal infrastructure; and developed societies who have come to think of the coast as a definable point that can be defended. The question is, how to get a consensus amongst politicians that extends beyond party-political tribalism and involves common messages even when a short-term opportunity to get one over on the opposition emerges.

  • How to make socially acceptable the really big responses that are necessary?
    We know that there are huge costs associated with maintaining existing lines of defence, and that there has been little abatement of developing infrastructure on the coast. That is storing up trouble as foreshores steepen and the costs of defence increase. At the moment there is huge resistance to any form of realignment and it has become a dirty word in many places, regarded as a nature conservation measure rather than an essential socio-economic measure.

  • How to place a value of sediment supplies?
    Coastal erosion is still seen as a bad thing and yet is is one of the few remaining resources for sediment needed to maintain beaches and estuaries. The wave attenuation values of saltmarshes, mudflats and sandy beaches is well-established but it barely figures in the psyche of politicians, so there is a need to start to put numbers against sections of the coast, based on the relative costs of not defending the coast and using sediment to defend other places, against the costs of defending eroding coasts and the long-term costs of then either losing or defending coastlines that rely on this sediment.

  • Analsysis of critical infrastucture under threat – not just now, but in 50 or 100 years time. If such infrastucture has to be moved, we need to be planning for this, safeguarding critical corridors and making sure it is possible to start to move when it needs to happen. This sort of work is very long-term and well beyond the five year life span of a Government.
    Sea level rise is such a big issue, there is a need for common ground to be established between the major political parties for a long-term strategy. What I find terribly dispiriting in this respect is the way in which the current Government has largely torn up 20+ years of strategic planning in favour, more or less, of a free-for-all if communities can find the money to take action. That inevitably means the strong will get their way and smaller, less vocal or powerful communities will be put at risk.

None of this is rocket science! Indeed it is not much more than plain common sense. But it is at risk if the focus of attention goes onto the develop of 'new' ideas that take the debate back 20 years. It also follows that the basics of sound coastal management have been established:

  • Predictions based on sound geomorphological principles.
  • Safeguarding existing sediment sources and sinks.
  • Minimising interruption of sediment pathways and release of new sediment.
  • Creating new sediment sinks to stop transport offshore.
  • Strategic planning according to best knowledge of sediment transport.
  • Community engagement throughout the process.

Surely it is a time for forward movement to secure action, rather than commissioning new research to answer the questions that have already been answered?

The beach at Dawlish  before the damage to the railway line in the winter of 2013/14. Loss of sediment and beach steepening is the fate awaiting many highly developed coasts, with all the associated costs.