John Hillman ponders over the cliffs of England and a perfectly preserved snapshot of the past that might just gives us a glimpse into our future
The Bouldnor Cliff on the Isle of Wight is the site of some pretty interesting underwater archeology, including an 8,000-year-old submerged Mesolithic village, but it is the answers to the effects of climate change that have scientists interested the most.
Travel back in time to 6,500 BC and the cliff becomes the highest point in a chalk ridge, surrounded by a lush forest, a far cry from the watery playground that it is today.
Underneath the Solent, hidden away from all those pleasure boaters, are root systems and tree stumps, as well as flints, wood and other organic material, which makes Bouldnor Cliff one of the most important archeological sites in the UK.
Preserved by a seabed of peat this site is proving to be invaluable to researchers and climate scientists who are able to study 8,000 years of coastal erosion, giving them a unique insight into the rate at which sea levels have changed and their subsequent impact on the shoreline. This helps to gain some idea of how it will all react in the future, which is becoming increasingly important as the process of climate change begins to speed up.
Southampton University’s Oceanography Centre is involved in a three year study, along with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trust for Maritime Archeology, to use the area surrounding Bouldnor Cliff to predict the effects of climate change, using both archeological and geotechnical techniques.
Thanks to the unique nature of Bouldnor Cliff scientists believe that they are now in a position to apply the data, gained from the site, to future environmental management plans around the whole of the British Isles.
Although most of us reside inland, there are millions of us living along the British coast or on any one of our 1000, or so, surrounding islands, so our exposure to the sea makes the work being done on the Isle of Wight crucially important as we move towards a future of more dramatic and dangerous climatic events.
The coast has always been subjected to a constant battering by the sea, and it is this that creates the beautiful and unique coastal arches, blowholes and stacks that attract so many of us to the beach each year. Primarily this is achieved by hydraulic action, whereby the force of the waves compresses air pockets in the coastal cliffs and rocks, which then explode as the air expands rapidly. During a big storm the force of the sea is so strong that it is actually akin to a bulldozer smashing into them at full tilt.
But thanks to rising sea temperatures of about 1C over the last century this process looks set to increase in intensity with about 20% of sites along the east coast eroding by more than 1 meter a year, which the Environment Agency thinks will cost us about £100 million a year in damages. About a year ago that might have sounded like a lot of money but in a post Credit Crunch Britain it feels oddly like small change.
The real concern will be the increased likelihood of flooding, with sea levels increasing by a millimeter a year and winter waves getting bigger all the time latest estimates put the increase at anywhere between four and tenfold over the coming years. Looks like a good time to learn how to surf though.