UK village considers the unfathomable: tearing itself down before nature does
Lee Bamber is standing in his garden on a gray day in Fairbourne, northwest Wales. The sea is within earshot — in fact, it’s just on the other side of a wall separating the Irish Sea from his land. The local council says because of rising sea levels, one day garden and sea will meet and the village will be flooded. Today, however, Bamber’s feet are resolutely dry.
Is he worried? “Absolutely not,” says the 45-year-old, his property has weathered floods before. “It’s not like tomorrow we’ll suddenly be in the land of Noah.”
But Old Testament theatrics isn’t climate change’s only guise. Sometimes it creeps up slowly, millimeters at a time, until the brine is lapping at your doorstep. The village, says one council manager, is in the midst of “a very slow emergency,” treated with the utmost seriousness. Plans are being drawn up that could remove Fairbourne from the map before nature does — and what happens here could have far-reaching implications for the rest of the UK.
“You cannot build your way out of it”
Some glaciers giveth; others taketh away.
During the last Ice Age much of Wales was covered in glaciers. When the ice melted, it left behind the principality’s famous hills and valleys. In places where glaciers once nestled rivers ran, depositing sediment over thousands of years and creating new land in patches along the coast.
On one such patch, south of the Mawddach river in northwest Wales, lies Fairbourne. It’s an aging community of around 1,000, and some of its residents have moved to the coast for sea air in their retirement. With surrounding views of Snowdonia’s mountains and its long beachfront to the west, it’s easy to see Fairbourne’s appeal. “It’s like a land that time’s forgot,” says local campsite owner Stuart Eves.
But this rugged idyll faces an existential crisis. Fairbourne is built on a natural flood plain, contending with the sea, a river estuary, water flowing off neighboring hillsides and the prospect of rising groundwater. It’s barely above sea level, hunkered down behind a reinforced shingle embankment. Following flooding in 2014, defenses were upgraded at a cost of £6.8 million ($8.7 million), but the council says they will only hold for so long. It concedes it is fighting a losing battle.
The primary concern is sea level rise. Levels have risen 5 millimeters a year since the 1990s, says Huw Williams, a civil engineer at Gwynedd Council, which has oversight of Fairbourne. Part of the reason is glaciers and ice sheets melting because of global warming, another is seawater increasing in volume as temperatures rise.
The rate is predicted to accelerate. Gwynedd Council is working on the basis of a one-meter sea level rise in the next 100 years, but some scientists say it could be more. A recent study’s worst-case scenario model said global sea levels could rise two meters by 2100, placing 187 million people at risk globally.
The problem isn’t just the base sea level, he adds: “As sea levels rise there’s more energy, bigger waves, more frequent storms. More and more water is going to overtop the embankment.”
The council’s plan is to stop defending Fairbourne in around 35 years — when the sea level is predicted to have risen 0.5 meters from 2014 levels — if not sooner. By 2054, Williams says a seawall between 4-6 meters high would be required, with defenses costing £115-120 million ($146-152 million). But a seawall for Fairbourne would come with no guarantees. “If that wall were to be overtopped or breached, the consequences would be dire,” Williams adds.
“The reality of sea level rise is going to be of such a magnitude that you cannot build your way out of it.”
“We’d need to remove any trace anyone’s lived there”
As a result of a plan approved in 2014, the council is considering relocating residents and yielding the land to the sea by the middle of the century.
Lisa Goodier is a senior project manager at Gwynedd Council’s flood and coastal erosion risk management team. Goodier says local data collected over 25 years has been used to calculate sea level rise predictions that align with those made by the UN scientists behind last year’s damning climate report. “We can’t not plan for something we know is going to happen,” she says, “it would be foolish not to.”
Goodier says 2045 is when relocations could begin, although a dramatic weather event could bring that date forward. “We’d need to remove any trace that anyone’s lived there in order for the sea to be able to come in there and not be polluted by anything that’s man made,” she explains. Houses, infrastructure, the lot.
“It’s not something that we’re used to talking about,” she adds, “planning for something you can’t actually see happening at the moment.”
The lack of immediate peril paired with talk of relocating residents has been met with understandable agitation. A word that keeps arising in media reports is “decommissioning.” That stings. “I don’t like the word,” says Eves. “You decommission a factory. You don’t decommission a village that’s full of people.”
Goodier is quick to stress the council doesn’t have the power to force anyone out of their homes and says police would only do so if there was a threat to human life. Nonetheless, she adds “we have a duty to inform people they are at risk.”
“I think it’s a bit of scaremongering,” says Philip Hill, 72, who moved to Fairbourne in January. “I’ve seen nothing come over that wall that’s made me worry at the moment, anyhow.”
“It’s what they (the council) think is going to happen — you just have to hope that they’re not right,” he adds.
Exacerbating residents’ plight is uncertainty over the possible relocation. Hemmed in by mountains, Fairbourne can’t simply be rebuilt further inland.
Five years on, the council has not yet confirmed where evacuees would be moved and who will foot the bill. Moreover, the council says there are no measures in place for Fairbourne’s residents to receive compensation for lost property assets. What no one wants is for Fairbourne’s residents to become the UK’s first climate change refugees.
A masterplan which would outline some of the council’s future strategy has been completed and is waiting for internal approval before release.
House prices have already been affected. Goodier says they are down 35-40% against comparable communities — a partial recovery after they fell to “almost zero in the course of a week” in early 2014. However she cautions prices could tail off in future.
Eves has lived in the village since 1976 and says he will stick it out. “We’re not burying our head in the sand, we’re not saying climate change isn’t happening,” he explains. “Let’s monitor what’s going on year by year … and if it does start to show a danger period, then it’s time to do something drastic.”
A blueprint for UK policy?
What happens at Fairbourne could be seen as a blueprint for future UK coastal strategy — or a cautionary tale, depending on how events pans out. Other vulnerable communities along the Welsh coast, as well as sections of East Yorkshire and East Anglia, will be taking note.
An October 2018 report by UK advisory body the Committee on Climate Change estimated 100,000 properties in the country may be at risk of coastal erosion by 2080, with 1.2 million homes in areas at risk of annual flooding. A half-meter sea level rise will “make a further 20% of England’s coastal defenses vulnerable to failure.”
As Gwynedd Council notes, coastal defences must meet “economic justification.” It’s hard not to compare Fairbourne to London and the Thames Estuary, and the £3.3 billion ($4.2 billion) funding required to protect the latter between now and 2050. The Thames Estuary 2100 Plan outlines maintenance and improvements on structures including the Thames Barrier, protecting “1.3 million people and £275 billion worth of property and infrastructure.”
“I hope Fairbourne will be used to influence some national policy,” says Goodier. “I want people to learn from the challenges we’ve had to face and the problems we haven’t yet solved.”
Back in Bamber’s garden, he remains optimistic about sea level rise, even touting the idea of building houses on stilts for future holidaymakers. It’s a cheerful acceptance that trying times are ahead.
“It will be dramatic,” he says, “what a time to be alive.”