The Severn Estuary – A changing coastal landscape

Severn Estuary

After months of Zoom, the CCAT Virtual Reality event in May had offered some hope of escape from the confines of the lockdown office and classroom.  

With risk assessments completed, weather forecasts and tides checked, the first ‘real’ fieldwork with ‘real’ people in early June was about to commence.  CCAT staff, Drs Rhoda Ballinger and Emma McKinley were to take part in a Cardiff University field course along the Somerset coast of the Severn Estuary.

Dr Emma McKinley & students, Brean Down

This was a student field course for Marine Geography students, focusing on the compatibility of coastal uses with the nature conservation of the estuary.  With internationally important wetlands, extensive intertidal areas and sabelleria reefs as well as migratory birds, fish and much more, we sought to examine some of the challenges posed by agriculture and tourism along the coast from Brean Down to Woodspring Bay.  The coast includes the extensive traditional resort of Weston Super Mare, extensive low-lying areas of productive farmland as well as a string of tourist developments which hug the coast at Brean and Sand Bay.  These assets are currently protected by a mixture of sand dunes and hard defences, many of which were fortified and raised following the significant 1981 flood.

Brean Sands

Looking to the future, scrutiny of the shoreline management policies for this stretch of coast indicates a range of policies from ‘hold the line’ to ‘managed realignment.’  Whilst these policies are currently under review, changes associated with sea level rise along this coast raise questions about the most sustainable use of this coast.   In the field we considered these questions, noting how this busy coast has been forced to rapidly adapt to the demands of staycations.  Will the communities be able to adapt so well to future climate change?  We noted the car parking on beaches and the tonnes of litter being removed on a regular basis from these shores as well as the positioning of the hard defences where once would have been extensive and active sand dune systems.   We discussed the routing of the English coast path which is currently under development and poses some interesting dilemmas particularly around the lowlying wetland areas.  We also thought about the ‘bigger’ unknowns from our vantage point at Brean Down, whilst looking across the waters to the Hinkley C development site – the future harnessing of potential tidal energy, perhaps?  The range of uses, time horizons and spatial scales needed to consider what is sustainable development on such a dynamic estuary is certainly a challenge.

Woodspring Bay

As the coach drew away from the seafront at Weston, some of the magic of face-to-face fieldwork began to fade. The field experiences, the sights, smells and sounds of the coast alongside the face-to-face discussions, were gone.  However, there are nearly a thousand photos and videos on the camera – just enough, maybe, for a VR field trip!

Weston Super Mare

If you want to find out more about this coast why not explore these websites:

As discussed above, the Severn Estuary is a continually changing, and incredibly dynamic environment. The Cardiff University CCAT Team work closely with the Severn Estuary Partnership (SEP), set up in 1995 as an independent initiative, hosted by Cardiff University, to work with local stakeholders in promoting a sustainable approach to the planning, management, and development of the estuary for all who live and work around the estuary, both now and for future generations.  Although the COVID-19 restrictions of 2020 resulted in a delay of the Partnership’s 25th Anniversary, in May 2021, the team were excited to welcome speakers and attendees from across the Estuary to their Virtual Severn Estuary Forum 2021, celebrating the past, present and future of SEP. Directly inspired by the format and structure of the CCAT Coastal Communities Adapting Together Exchanging Knowledge and Best Practice Across Borders Event held in November of 2020, the Severn Estuary 2021 Forum invited speakers to reflect on their own experience over the 25 years of SEP, covering a number of themes. These included: 

  • Climate change, adaptation and the community
  • Planning, Governance and Flood Risk
  • Severn Estuary: A Changing Landscape
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CCAT’s very own Emma McKinley opened the event, and along with other session chairs, guided attendees through the presentation and excellent discussion sessions on each day. Crucially, the event explored a range of themes through an inspiring and stimulating programme of speakers, including the importance of working in partnership and collaboration, the benefits of working with communities and stakeholders and the important role of community engagement activities, the challenges (and opportunities!) of working across borders, the value of adaptive and flexible management which allows responsive action to be taken as the Estuary continues to change, and finally, the need for urgent action to be taken in response to both the ecological and climate crises.  More information about the Forum and the presentations can be found on the Severn Estuary Partnership Website.  

Last but not least, the SEP team is excited to share a recent film that was commissioned to celebrate 25 years of the Severn Estuary Partnership – you can find it here and are welcome to share it widely!

Research Fellow at | Website | + posts
Dr Rhoda Ballinger
Reader at Cardiff University | Website | + posts

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