Stark new research from a NatureScot-backed Scottish Government project Dynamic Coast has highlighted the risk to £1.2bn of infrastructure and property by 2050 – if immediate action is not taken to prevent damage to the country's shorelines, discovers Dominic Ryan

FIGURES for the financial impact on Scotland of rising sea level and coastal erosion are as vast as the oceans are deep.

According to new research, under a continued high-emission future an estimated £1.2 billion worth of our nation’s roads, rail and residential property is anticipated to be at risk by 2050. 

At present, at least £20 billion of assets lie within 50 metres of our coastline.

As part of its study, the Dynamic Coast project also developed digital maps to serve as a coastal change adaptation planning tool for government, agencies, local authorities, residential communities and businesses.

By comparing the extent of anticipated erosion with the location of buildings and infrastructure, as well as cultural and natural heritage interests, the research identifies those assets at increased risk.

Based on the findings, the government is now encouraging local authorities to prepare coastal adaptation plans, supported by an additional £12 million of investment. 

Dynamic Coast is an award-winning Scottish Government project, funded by The Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW). Managed and driven forward by NatureScot’s Dr Alistair Rennie, the research was led by Prof Jim Hansom of the University of Glasgow. Dr Rennie underlines the scale of the threat coastal communities face.

“It’s a big problem. It’s an urgent problem,” he says. “It’s also immediate because right now people are paying attention to the climate debate and having COP26 ahead provides a unique opportunity for us to have conversations about it more easily.

“As the world becomes increasingly aware of climate change and the need for us to do things differently, Dynamic Coast very clearly demonstrates that, while we must mitigate climate change effects and get to Net Zero quickly – rapidly achieving Net Zero will save at least £400 million of damage by 2050 – this alone is not going to be enough.”

A key reason for this is the fact that ongoing sea level rise is already locked in due to past and future emissions. “We need to adapt to our future climate and coast and the interactive maps we’ve produced give a guide to this,” says Dr Rennie.

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“With COP26 and all these other discussions, with everyone thinking a little more creatively than we have previously, there’s an opportunity to see that the road ahead is going to be very bumpy unless we change a lot of things.

“We need to do more. We need to start thinking about how we can make things work better, how we can plan ahead, pick the fights we want to win. Thankfully, we’ve got Scotland’s nature in our corner and, through close partnership working with local authorities and partners, we can make great strides forwards, as is shown by the ‘super site’ case-studies on” 

Director of Nature and Climate Change at NatureScot, Nick Halfhide added: “This latest research from Dynamic Coast highlights that natural defences, such as beaches, sand dunes and salt marshes, protect three times the value of roads, railways and buildings than sea walls do. 

“That’s why we must value and invest in Scotland’s nature. Nature-based solutions are essential in our response to the twin crises of nature loss and climate change and, with COP26 coming to Glasgow in the coming months, there’s no better time for Scotland to take ambitious action.”

Key to such ambitions action and implementing effective change is the notion of being ‘sea level wise’.

“Being sea level wise is about taking an interest in asking questions,” says Dr Rennie. 

“What future sea level, coastal erosion and coastal flood frequency should we expect? What things that we care about are at risk? How can we better manage these risks? Is defending going to be cheaper or better, than adapting or moving out of harm’s way?”

According to Glasgow University’s Prof. Hansom, Dynamic Coast helps point the way toward many of the answers. 

He says: “Investing in both natural and artificial coastal defences to enhance short-term resilience serves to buy time to allow longer-term adaptational strategies to be developed and implemented flexibly. 

"Planning space now needs to be found to accommodate a future coast landward of its present position, as well as space for assets displaced by this shift to be relocated to less risky sites. Allowing new development along such eroding coasts locks us into risky and costly futures and just doesn’t make sense.”  

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New approaches to coastal management are already being supported. 
While prime urban shores such as Edinburgh and Dundee, key infrastructure such as Grangemeouth, and cultural treasures such as Skara Brae may well justify investing in ever higher seawalls, more flexible and dynamic approaches that incorporate future uncertainty are increasingly considered the best approach to manage the increasing risks for most of our coast. 

Planning for these so-called Dynamic Adaptive Pathways allows multiple management strategies to be prepared that are nimble enough to be easily switched around as future events unfold. For example, at locations as far flung as Golspie, Montrose, St Andrews and Tiree, natural beaches and sand dunes have in the past provided valuable protection to the low-lying land behind. 

These now need to be valued and sensitively managed, perhaps in places by “Working with Nature” to augment protective beaches with extra sand and provide as much protection as possible in a future that will inevitably bring increases in sea level and erosion. 

This strategy has been successful at St Andrews where the resilience of both beach and dunes have been bolstered by sand relocated from nearby. 
For much of the coast a Dynamic Adaptive Pathways approach to future management will allow a range of flexible options to be openly discussed and help chart a sustainable way forward for the natural coast as well as the businesses and communities that depend on it. 



Ministers call upon councils to focus on sustainability

THE Scottish Government is presently promoting the data provided by Dynamic Coast maps to encourage local authorities to prepare coastal adaptation plans, supported by millions of pounds of additional investment.

On a recent visit to the sand dunes that help protect Montrose from coastal erosion and flooding, Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero Michael Matheson welcomed the plans and research which shows that  billions of pounds worth of Scottish assets – such as road, rail and residential properties, currently lie within the danger zone of our coastlines. 

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He said: “I welcome the publication of the Dynamic Coast maps which show us at least £20 billion of assets, road, rail and residential property, lie within just 50 metres of our coast. With nature protecting some £14.5 billion of these assets, maintaining our natural coastal defences must be a key part of our resilience and adaptation strategies.  

“We are already locked into future sea level rise and therefore we must plan for the worst case scenario on the coast.

“The Dynamic Coast maps will be a valuable tool in our fight against climate change and we are now preparing guidance to help local authorities produce new adaptation plans.”
Mr Matheson added: “Here in Montrose, up to 80 metres of beach has eroded since the 1980s and a further 120 metres could erode over the next 40 years, breaching the main dune ridge.

“Angus Council is working with local stakeholders, including Montrose Port Authority and Montrose Golf links to identify the most sustainable solution for the town.

“COP26 in Glasgow represents the world’s best chance – perhaps one of our very last chances – to avert the worst impacts of climate change. 

“However, even in the best case scenario for global emissions reductions it is clear that we must also be preparing for the impacts that are already locked in.

“By doing this we can undoubtedly deliver on the principles of the Paris Agreement with lasting action to secure a net zero and climate resilient future in a way that is fair and just for everyone.”

NatureScot’s Dr Alistair Rennie believes the Dynamic Coast project allows Scotland the ability to ask the right questions and provide informed answers to allow us to take more sustainable action at the coast. 

He said: “We now need to change people’s minds and inform them of what the bumps in the road ahead will look like and cost. 

“Then hopefully the right information can be delivered to allow better choices to be made.”


Projections illustrate the need for urgent action

THE first phase of the Dynamic Coast project was launched in 2017 and identified soft and therefore potentially erodible coastline, and showed faster and more extensive erosion since the 1970s. Phase two added a "climate change layer" to these projections.  

Under a cautious risk assessment, where both artificial and natural defences are not maintained – and a high emissions future –  the report revealed many of the country's vital infrastructure and property assets may be at risk of severe erosion within just three decades.


In response, the Scottish Government has also announced plans to host a National Climate Resilience Summit in the Autumn, to raise awareness and build momentum across the public and private sectors in advance of COP26.

Dynamic Coast also helps deliver against risks identified in the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment and is Climate Change Adaptation Programme.

Professor Bob Ferrier, director of CREW (Scotland's Centre of Expertise for Waters) which invested £475,000 in the project, said: “CREW is delighted to have supported the development and launch of the Dynamic Coast project. This significant research will assist decision-makers to understand how coastal assets need to adapt to climate change."