Changing Tides

By Paula Newman

rough seas at Seaham England lighthouse

High seas and rough weather create waves that crash over the breakwater at Seaham Harbour. 

Dude, Where’s My Beach?

Today, there was a stark warning on the news, with talk of long-term preparations for floods that are becoming more frequent across the U.K. Great Britain is an island, and during the last ice age, it was squashed by massive glaciers that left us with some amazing scenery, valleys, denes, and more. As the ice retreated, the effect of squashing the island was reversed and the North of Britain began to rise up, slowly. In fact, so slowly, that it is still rising, very gently, as it recovers. 

Think of Britain as a giant see-saw (teeter-totter) that was pushed down at one end. Now that the North is rising, the South is sinking into the sea. Already we are seeing exceptional high tides (or perhaps exceptional low land) in the South East that are causing coastal areas to disappear. In the same areas, we are also seeing more frequent cliff erosion, with houses disappearing into the sea and cliff edges creeping ever further inland. This got me thinking.

In Seaham (in North East England), we are lucky that we have a substantial sea wall that protects the cliffs along the seafront, but we are aware that beaches to the north and south of Seaham, with no such protection, are seeing land slips and cliff erosion at frequent intervals. Parts of the Durham Heritage Coastal Path have been re-routed to avoid the areas that are likely to disappear without warning. These are clear indications that despite our part of the country rising out of the sea, slowly, at the same time sea levels are rising and storms are getting stronger and more powerful. Just search online for “Seaham Lighthouse” and click on the images. I guarantee you’ll see many photos of the lighthouse being dwarfed by massive waves. This brings me to my point. Parts of my favorite beach have been disappearing, and this time, I don’t mean gently. Below is an example.

climate change on english beaches

The steps in the above photo were built back in the early 1900s to provide protection to the beach. These rusty sections of rail track once formed a railway that ran along the beach, and were embedded in the concrete. They supported long planks of wood that served as breakwaters to protect the beach. They have long since rotted away, but the concrete and rail track survives, and for many years, they were barely visible above the beach itself. That all changed in the past year, where the result of several storms has been the disappearance of huge quantities of sand and rock, as you can see in the photo below.

Many decades of sand and shingle deposits have disappeared, and though at other times, a lot comes back, the erosion becomes more and more noticeable with each passing storm. What this means overall is that as the sea levels rise and the beach is removed, the profile of the beach changes, becoming more shallow. In no time at all, we might find the beach becoming narrower between low and high tides and eventually the tides will mean nothing more than the height of the sea level against the sea wall, with no more beach below. This is a terrifying thought, and there are many beaches around the world that are suffering the same fate. Could this be the beginning of the end of our beachcombing?

A common question asked by visiting sea glass hunters is “What will happen when the sea glass runs out?” to which I think to myself, “I’ll be looking for another career!” However, it never occurred to me that there was another possibility: that the beach would run out before the sea glass did. Now, that’s a real possibility. In fact the huge ice shelf in Antarctica that has broken free and is now rapidly melting will effectively reduce the range of our average tides by half.

seaham england beach erosion

I’m not trying to be a scaremonger—far from it—but as an observer, I can’t help wonder just how long it will take before we no longer have a beach to comb. Already it’s becoming more dangerous to walk around the various headlands between beaches, as the tide barely seems to retreat as much as it once did. Recently, a person had to be rescued from Chemical Beach in Seaham when they were unable to get back the way they came, and they couldn’t scale the rocks to reach the seafront road and safety. 

It was for this reason that I thought that I should get on with the guide to beaches near Seaham that many visitors had asked me to produce. In it, I give advice on beaches to visit and those to ignore, the best ways of accessing them, and what footpaths to take. I also point out the hazards that I have discovered and the likelihood of finding sea glass. I hope that this encourages people to visit and enjoy this coastline for beachcombing while we still can.

All photos courtesy of Paula Newman and Kirsti Scott.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2019 issue.

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