Hard or soft?

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Imagine driving into a brick wall at 40 mph. Slam! That is going to hurt. You, the car and the wall won’t be in a great state. Now contrast the wall with driving into thick mud and sand. A bumpy ride and a sticky situation, for sure, but I know which of these options I would choose.

Why then, do we so frequently fail to apply this logic to our sea defences? We concrete up the coastline and wonder why our manmade defences fail us in times of storm and high tide. A look at the UK’s coastline after its recent battering tells an important and devastating story; rock and concrete are no match for the power of a violent sea.

When you put concrete in one place, it will provide protection in its direct locality for a certain amount of time, subject to expensive and ongoing maintenance. However, the energy of the sea has to go somewhere, and hard sea defences just create another pinch point further around the coast. It is inevitable, for example, that closing the Thames Barrier increases the overall height of the sea and hence leads to more flooding in places such as Essex.

In recent weeks, scientists have backed Prime Minister David Cameron’s comment linking climate change to the recent “abnormal” weather. Based on this judgement, our region will need to prepare for more tidal and inland flooding in the future.

Concrete hasn’t stood up to its latest test in some places, but there is another way. It is the soft mud approach versus the hard wall. Soft tidal defences such as salt marshes and mudflats help absorb wave energy which then reduces the impact on cliffs or defences behind them. They also provide valuable habitats for wildlife.

Over time, we are losing these soft defences. Gradually, mudflats would shift inland, but hard sea defences prevent this and creates a phenomenon known as ‘coastal squeeze’. It may sound like a romantic cuddle on the beach, but it describes instead the gradual erosion of intertidal habitats up to a sea defence, leading to the sea front being exposed to the full force of the waves.

In the East of England, coastal squeeze is a big problem. The answer is to create new intertidal habitats in suitable locations around the coast, such on the Wash or parts of the Essex coast.  Indeed, studies indicate that this would be both an economically and environmentally efficient way of protecting our homes, businesses and biodiversity – even taking into consideration suitable payments for farmers and landowners.

Coastal management will always be a complex science. Many communities would cease to exist without hard seawalls or tidal barriers. We must fight to hang on to these places as long as we can. Meanwhile, being more flexible about other coastal locations, and allowing the sea in, will take the pressure off those on the edge.

If we work with nature, rather than against it, we have a far better chance of protecting our homes and livelihoods. In short; mud, glorious mud, there’s nothing quite like it for soothing the flood.

 

First published in the EDP and EADT.

Does hell sell?

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Storms sweep the land and yet more crops are destroyed. The famine will surely worsen yet at least there is enough water to drink, for now. In the Arctic, the polar bear struggles out of the sea and collapses, exhausted, on the only iceberg she can find. Unable to hunt successfully with so little ice, she is thin and weak.

How does this grim picture of a future world in the grips of climate change affect you? Does it make you feel like turning over the page? Painting a doom and gloom scenario in distressing detail is the mainstay of many charities who need our money to try and make a difference.

We’ve all seen the big, scared eyes of malnourished infants looking beseechingly into the camera, alongside the text that just £4 a month will save a life. It is standard practice to present the pain and the suffering on a plate for us, calculated to pull at our heartstrings. Our way of switching off the guilt and distress that we feel is to donate a few pounds.

This approach can be highly effective at raising funds. However, it encourages a short term relationship with the issues concerned. Parting with money enables us to instantly shut out the uncomfortable feelings until next time. However, this method doesn’t work with the environment, and in particular climate change.  

Threats of climate chaos don’t just require us to throw a few pennies in the pot to fix them. It is about how our whole society functions, around the globe. It is about the choices each of us makes from the moment we wake up until we sleep at night, every single day.  If we allow ourselves to care, and to imagine a polar bear fighting for life every time we pop the heating on, then we are letting ourselves in for a guilt-ridden ride through modern life.

The sustainability communications agency, Futerra, believes that the doom and gloom approach has failed to communicate climate change to the general public. They state that while “Armageddon climate scenarios might be accurate and eye-catching, they haven’t changed attitudes or behaviours nearly enough.” Futerra believes that instead of running from climate hell, we need to run towards a low-carbon heaven.

This low-carbon future needs to be sexy, fun and compelling. It needs to make our lives easier, keep us healthier and help our economy thrive. We need to ask how we want to eat in the future and how we want to travel. Do we want vacuum-packed meals or fresh, local abundance? Do we want traffic jams and aeroplanes constantly overhead or do we want the infrastructure to cycle and cleaner, quieter engines powering our vehicles?

Our low-carbon future needs to be worth fighting for and our perspectives must shift away from what we cut, to what we gain. It makes more sense too. Fitting low energy light bulbs never felt like it was going to prevent climate hell, but all of us taking tiny steps together, now that really could build something worth striving for.

 

First published in the EADT and EDP

Happy spring!

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Spring officially starts on the 20th March this year. That’s what people reckon anyway, with our neatly segregated calendar and clock change policy.

Springtime is of course characterised by growth and greenery, with birdsong in the air and fragrant flowers attracting bees and butterflies. Animals leave hibernation, migrant birds arrive and it’s all about the babies.

Forget the human calendar; wildlife reckons that spring starts right now. After all, it is a slow transition, not a date in the diary. Its stirrings are already well underway beneath the soil, in the sap of the trees and within the depths of the hedgerows.

Almost imperceptibly, the days are lengthening and this triggers change. One of the first outward signs is the snowdrops which will soon add their flash of white to the blank winter canvases of our woodlands. Look closely and you’ll see that on trees the buds are preparing to burst out. Soon, the song of birds such as song thrushes will join the robin’s lone voice.

Phenologists study the start of spring and look for key signs such as the first bumble bee or frog spawn. The dates of certain events in nature have been recorded for centuries and there are clear patterns over the years, despite the odd blip for unusual weather conditions.  

The impact of climate change means that the signs of spring are creeping ever earlier. For example, the creamy white May blossom of the Hawthorn needs a rebrand as it is now more likely to be April blossom. Frog and toad spawn are now often seen as early as February, which means that the frogs have been up to frisky spring behaviour back in December.

The green of our unofficial national flower, the bluebell, is showing in our woodlands, heralding heavenly purple carpets. The threat of rising temperatures means not just earlier flowering for bluebells, but a possible loss of this British wonder as it could fail to adapt sufficiently to warmer weather and would be out-competed by other plants.

Nature is pretty good at perfect pairings. Alongside the nettles we have soothing dock leaves and when the apples ripen, the blackberries are ready too for that perfect crumble. As the blue tit chicks hatch, the caterpillars emerge, providing perfect food for growing babies, and when the hibernating bee wakes, it coincides with the flowering of nectar plants.

However, in the shifting sands of climate change things can get muddled. This perfect synchronicity is lost as age old patterns die. How much can nature adapt? Will different species change their habits at varying speeds? These are the questions which we cannot truly answer.

Look outside at all the fragility and strength. As humans, we often feel weak and powerless compared to the falling snow, the battering winds and the tides that flood our homes. Nature is indeed such a great force, but we must never forget how much it is at our mercy. 

First published in the EDP and EADT on 10th January 2014

Step away from the gym

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So you want to be healthy in 2014? Lose a little weight? Feel less stressed and more energised? ‘Ah,’ many of us think to ourselves, ‘well in that case, I simply must join a gym. Within days I’ll have a six pack and biceps to die for’.

Don’t do it, you have a choice. The January gym fad is unlikely to last. We do it because we are so desperate to take some action that indicates our intention to be different this year.

However, the reality is that you will probably go once or twice. The rest of the New Year’s resolution crowd will be there, incompetently clanking the weights or standing idly queuing for the Powerplate. It will feel like hell on earth and it will be easy for you to find excuses to avoid going in future. The direct debit will continue to leave your account and the chains of a year’s contract will feel heavier than the dumbbells you tried to lift.

Actually, I enjoy exercising in a gym, but have seen for myself how, after that initial January rush, so many new members’ workout cards end up untouched at the back of the pile. If you still want to join in March, then go for it. You’ll probably get a better deal too.

Instead, try stepping outside. Yes, it’s freezing, but that burns calories. Yes, it’s dark, but wear a head torch and go with a friend. The benefits of exercising outside are massive and Mother Nature makes no charge.

A report by the University of Essex explains that exercising outside may feel easier than doing so in the gym. When allowed to self-select walking speed, participants tended to walk faster outdoors than indoors. Paradoxically, they reported a lower rating of perceived exertion. You are likely to end up fitter without so much mental effort!

Green exercise is also strongly linked with improving self-esteem and reducing negative feelings such as tension, anger or depression. This is vital for children and teenagers too, so lead by example.

Chilly, gloomy January is undeniably the hardest time in the year to get out there, so do it now and, in just a matter of weeks, the gradual awakening of spring will keep you hooked. You will hear birdsong and see nature busy around you, not caring that your lycra is somewhat past its best. Snowdrops, courting birds and mad hares are all waiting to distract you from the fact that you are exerting yourself.

It’s so simple too – all you need is a pair of trainers or walking boots (and of course the all clear from your doctor if you’re not used to exercising) and a park, pavement, footpath or country lane.

I mentioned that there is no charge, but I forgot to tell you about the contract imposed by the great outdoors. It will make the gym’s commitment of 12 months seem paltry. This is a lifetime arrangement, because once you build a little time into your routine for green exercise and start feeling the benefits, you will be addicted for life. 

First published in the EDP and EADT