Writer and broadcaster Nicholas Crane comes home to offer a geological perspective on East Anglia's coastal issues
PUBLISHED: 12:38 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 13:31 08 November 2018
If you want someone to put the current concerns about coastal erosion into a geological perspective, then writer Nicholas Crane can do it as eloquently as anybody.
Nicholas Crane visited the region last month as guest speaker at the Suffolk Coast Forum but his journey up from London where he is now based wasn’t just a business trip - it was a return to his home region. He grew up in Norfolk where his parents still live while his uncle was a GP in Leiston, Suffolk.
“East Anglia is both home, and for me as a geographer, one of the most exciting, dynamic regions in Britain,” said Mr Crane, who has spent the past 20 years writing and making documentaries about these isles.
His TV work including the series Map Man, Coast and Great British Journeys were all British documentaries while his books, such as Two Degrees West where he charted his walk along the length of England and The Making of the British Landscape, which looked at the last 12,000 years of landscape history in Britain, have all been Britain-centric.
A young island
“We are a young island,” he continued. “Britain has only been occupied for 12,000 years whereas Spain, for example, has been occupied for 30,000 years.
“People didn’t come here until around 9,500 BC when the ice melted – then we were still a peninsula, we weren’t an island, we were still connected to the mainland. Hunter-gathers walked across this low-lying isthmus, this plain joining East Anglia to what is now North Germany.
“It’s all happened so quickly - we’ve gone from nobody being here at all in 9,500BC to 64million of us being here today.”
But the climatic changes that eventually made us an island, are also a cause of some of our biggest challenges in the 21st century, he says.
“We’re confronting two types of change at once - at one point there were 400m thick ice caps sitting on Rannoch Moor in Scotland – millions of tonnes of ice that when it started to melt caused the earth’s crust in the north of Britain to rebound upwards.”
Like a see-saw, this isostatic recovery in the north meant that the south of Britain dipped down at the same time, as all the melting ice raced into the oceans and raised sea levels. This is why sea level rises have always been a much bigger issue in the south of Britain than they have in the north.
Mr Crane continued: “The other reason sea level rises are such an acute challenge in East Anglia is, unlike the west of Britain which on the whole is made up of hard, resilient rocks and cliffs that form natural sea defences, in the east our coast is made up of what is known as glacial till, which is loosely bounded clays and gravel that washes away easily.”
Rising sea levels
There are many examples of eroding coastline from East Anglia’s past - Dunwich in Suffolk is infamous for having partially disappeared after a series storm surges in the 13th and 14th centuries while the image of the church tower on the beach at Eccles in Norfolk is iconic.
Crane says he remembers as a young boy jumping across the top of concrete sea defences at Winterton in Norfolk that were then well inland but today are on the beach because the cliffs have receded so far.
“The issue now is to work out a policy that responds suitably to rising sea levels and more extreme weather, which is what is predicted for Britain,” he continued.
“One thing that has become clear, the option of the Dutch solution of building hard defences around all the sensitive sections of the British coastline would be eye-wateringly expensive and it may not be the right solution anyway.
“The real risk with the hard wall Dutch solution is that you are creating a single, thin line to defy the sea. It works while it stands but if it is ever breached you are in deep trouble.
“One of the great problems we have is the enormous range of sea level rise forecasts – are we planning for ½ metre by the end of the century or three metres by the end of the century? Because if we are talking about three metres – we are talking about a sea wall that is bigger than most buildings – you won’t be able to see over the top of it.”
Mr Crane added: “Another option is managed coastal realignment where we withdraw episodically to higher ground, take the sting out of coastal erosion by deliberating cultivating salt marsh for example – where you have a gentle ramp rather than a impermeable wall.
“That has different cost and aesthetic implications and actually it’s more versatile. As a system solution it can be changed over time - managed realignment can be adjusted as forecasts for sea level rises change.”
REVIEW: You Are Here - a brief guide to the world by Nicholas Crane
The importance of geographical knowledge and how this is integral to our understanding of the challenges facing us today is central to Nicholas Crane’s latest book, published last month, called You Are Here - a brief guide to the world.
Mr Crane was one time president of the Royal Geographical Society and this short book of 120 pages contains a sweeping view of his wealth of knowledge and the many places he has obviously visited.
Beautifully-written, the work can be seen as a series of six essays, building on each other to create a picture of the complex systems that drive our wondrous planet and how the human race is impacting on it but, at the same time has so much more to learn and discover.
We start off looking down on Earth from the L1 spacecraft and are given a short history of the planet before diving in and learning about the importance of water - from the ice glaciers and water torrents that have formed our landscape, to how the water cycle is crucial to our existence.
There is also a treatise on the history of ancient map-making and how maps have shaped our understanding of the world around us, as well as a mind-boggling chapter on the growth of the world’s mega-cities and the inter-connectedness of these conurbations driven by air transport.
The books interweaves natural geography with human geography and our impact in terms of pollution, land use change and climate change are never far from the surface.
The final chapter, called the Age of Geography, underlines the importance of education in this subject for modern times.
Crane writes: “On this finite orb with its battered habitats, sustained in dark space by its intricate swirl of interconnected systems, we have reached a point on our collective journey where knowledge is the best guarantor of the future. Geography will keep us human.”