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The University of Southampton

Wetlands across England’s south coast need to move inland in fight against climate change

Published: 13 September 2018
Image of wetlands
These findings will have particular implications for wetlands on the South Coast.

A new global study involving researchers from the University of Southampton suggests coastal wetlands, such as those on the South Coast of England, can survive rising sea levels and continue to provide natural defence from flooding if they are able to migrate further inland.

Coastal wetlands, which include saltmarshes, mudflats and mangroves are found widely around the world’s coastlines. They provide productive habitats for wildlife and protect local communities from flooding and coastal erosion. Wetlands are declining around the world and rising sea levels are expected to increase the rate of these losses. However this new research shows that if coastal wetlands are given space to expand, they can adapt to rising sea levels and continue to protect coastal communities from the effects of climate change.

These findings will have particular implications for the South Coast. Saltmarshes are widely found in front of seawalls and dikes in estuaries such as the Solent or Poole Harbour and are declining. A number of projects in the region have seen manmade defences removed or relocated to restore the natural flood defence provided by wetlands. Schemes have been implemented around Chichester Harbour, at Thorness Bay on the Isle of Wight, the Rother, East Sussex and most notably the large project at Medmerry near Selsey Bill. Further schemes are being implemented or are planned in the coming decades.

Whilst schemes such as these can face local opposition, the study’s authors are calling for this natural approach to protecting the coast to be considered more widely. To build on this global study, more monitoring is needed locally to ensure that coastal engineers have the information they need to minimise the risk of flooding.

Professor Robert Nicholls from the University of Southampton who co-authored the report said: “This paper fundamentally challenges the existing consensus about the future of coastal wetlands under sea-level rise. It suggests that nature-based approaches to defence in coastal zones are sustainable and we should maximise the benefits of them as much as we can.”

Dr Sally Brown and Dr Mark Pickering completed the team from the University of Southampton. The global study was led by the University of Lincoln and included researchers from universities in Germany, Australia and the USA.

The full paper, Future responses of global coastal wetlands to sea level rise, has been published in the scientific journal Nature.

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