Read a news report on an incident of coastal erosion and you’ll find the writer — and the featured scientist — blaming ‘climate change’. By which is meant climate change produced by human activities. No doubt that’s one cause. But there are other factors at work. Among them are the deep geological processes that formed the island of Britain in the first place, as well as the ineluctable decomposition that occurs when water runs up against earth and rock.
That said, the scientific consensus is that climate change is exposing more of Britain’s coastline to inundation and erosion. According to the British Geological Survey: ‘as much as 15.5 per cent of Britain’s coastline has a high susceptibility to erosion’. And the risk is not confined to the east coast of England. Though the coastlines of Scotland and Wales have a much higher proportion of hard rock than England’s, there are still plenty of vulnerable stretches.
Visit Mersea Island in Essex and you can see the clay-and-sand cliffs on the south-east side, facing the North Sea, crumbling almost in real time. Further up the coast, the village of Dunwich in Suffolk is a reminder of how dramatic the effects of coastal erosion can be. More than a thousand years ago, Dunwich was the capital of the Kingdom of East Anglia, a thriving port and one of the richest towns in Anglo-Saxon England. In 1286, the first in a series of severe storms hit this part of the coast. Medieval Dunwich began to slip into the sea. Today it is almost all below water. This all happened before man-made climate change got going.
And the erosion of Dunwich goes on. On the high ground above the shore, you will find a single grave close to the cliff edge. It is the grave of one Jacob Forster and it is all that remains of the Church of All Saints and its burial ground, which fell into the sea between 1904 and 1920.
Current geological theory posits that 200 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangaea began to break up, fragmenting into the continents we know today. Britain, as a distinct land mass, formed around the same time, though it didn’t become an island until a mere 8,000 years ago. These geological timescales are overwhelming and humbling. But they point to a future, albeit a distant one, in which Britain will have ceased to exist, not because of climate change or the action of the sea, but because of those deep geological processes I mentioned before. There’ll always be an England in the same sense there’ll always be an Atlantis. But only in that sense.