Homes Dangle on English Cliffs as Global Warming Erodes Shore

Phyllis Tubby bought her home 20 years ago so she could live near the sea. Now, the cliff is just a few yards from her fence. A nearby house is worth one pound, and three doors away Diana Wrightson has closed her tea shop.

That's the downside of having an ocean view in Happisburgh, a village of 850 people on England's Norfolk coast. Tubby, an 85- year-old retired nurse, has watched the cliff edge toward her home. Like the owners of 26 houses destroyed in the past 15 years, she won't be entitled to government compensation when the North Sea claims her property.

Happisburgh illustrates the decisions U.K. authorities face: where to build defenses to protect the coast and where to let nature take its course. With global warming forecast to hasten the sea's encroachment, the government estimates that 140 billion pounds ($267 billion) of homes, roads and businesses are at risk.

"The evidence is indisputable: We are going to see more extreme weather events, which are likely to produce increased coastal erosion," Environment Minister Ian Pearson said in an interview. "We'll need to spend more money in the future."

Happisburgh isn't alone. In Aldbrough, on a stretch of Yorkshire coast where 25 villages have been lost to the sea since Roman times, Seaside Road ends abruptly where erosion has cut it short. The Martello tower near Bawdsey in Suffolk, built in the 19th century to help defend against Napoleon, is also imperiled.

Working With Nature

The National Trust, which owns about a 10th of the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, estimates that 60 percent of its shoreline is at risk of eroding in the next 100 years.

The trust, a charity that safeguards historic buildings, gardens and nature reserves, in the past failed to bow to the environment, putting cafes and parking lots in areas subject to erosion. Now its policy is "working with nature," said Ellie Robinson, assistant director of policy, because interfering has ripple effects.

"A lot of trust coastline is being badly impacted by defenses further along the coast that are starving sediment in the system," she said. "There's no natural recharge of beaches and sand dunes."

The 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) English coast has 1,900 kilometers of man-made defenses. Revetments designed to absorb wave power cost 1,500 pounds a meter (3 feet), according to the North Norfolk District Council, which oversees Happisburgh. Sea walls cost 5,000 pounds a meter, and 100 meters of wooden groyne, structures that contain sediment, cost 100,000 pounds.

Rising Seas

The government "can't build higher and higher concrete walls around the whole of the U.K.," Pearson said. It forecasts that climate change may cause the sea to rise as much as 86 centimeters (34 inches) in some locations by the 2080s.

Alternatives to constructing barriers include allowing the sea to breach some areas, creating protective marshes, building sand dunes and adapting structures to allow for occasional flooding - and in some cases moving them, Robinson said.

Happisburgh hasn't received funds to defend its coast since 1989 because the cost isn't justified by the value of assets protected, under government guidelines. The latest draft Shoreline Management Plan for North Norfolk, which outlines scenarios over a century, says there is "no economic case to be made."

The North Norfolk council will reject the draft, and the village's official policy of "hold the line" will remain unenforced, said Clive Stockton, a councilor who runs the Hill House pub. He wants residents to be safeguarded for at least 20 years to give them time to adapt and move.

Crumbling Defenses

A bay reaching 180 meters inland has opened up south of Happisburgh, showing what can happen when revetments crumble, said Malcolm Kerby, who coordinates the village's campaign for coastal protection.

"To the north, where the revetment line remains intact, the cliff line remains intact," Kerby said, standing on the beach below the cliff. "Look to the south, where the revetment line has been removed. In erosion terms, chaos has happened."

A property boom that more than doubled East Anglia house prices in 15 years missed Happisburgh. Stockton's pub, where Arthur Conan Doyle wrote one of his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, is worth less than he paid in 1991. The inn and 12th-century church may be lost to the sea within 50 years, the councilor said.

Happisburgh residents say that because their houses were behind government-built defenses when they moved there, they should receive restitution.

"I recognize the sense of grievance that people in Happisburgh have," said Pearson, who visited the village in August. The minister said he wants a debate on "social justice," including compensation and how decisions are made on which areas to defend.

It may come too late for Tubby and Wrightson, whose tea shop is the headquarters for Kerby's group. The cliff edge has crept within 14 meters of the building. At 10 meters, the shop will have to be demolished for safety.

"I hope I don't live to have to move out," Tubby said in her bungalow next door. "They'd put me in an old people's home, I expect."