When Nicola Bayless’s parents bought a house in Happisburgh, an idyllic coastal village in Norfolk, England, they were told it would be 150 years before erosion of the nearby cliff might threaten it. “They said, ‘We’ll be long dead and so will you,’” Bayless says. “But here we are.”
That was 23 years ago. Today Bayless’s house is on the second-to-last plot on the road; its front windows look out on an empty lot that used to be a neighbor’s home until it was demolished in October. Just beyond that is the cliff, which Bayless says has retreated by eight meters in the past 18 months. The erosion has happened so quickly that Google’s Street View of the road, last taken in 2009, still shows it disappearing into the distance beyond Bayless’s home. In 2023, though, there’s nothing but a “Road Closed” barrier followed by a sheer drop.
“It’s changed unbelievably. You just don’t recognize the place,” says Bayless, 47, a nurse and Zumba instructor. “Houses, friends that have lived in those houses, have all gone. It’s all gone.’”
On England’s east coast, locals have been fighting a losing battle against the sea for generations; fatal floods date back to the 13th century. In Happisburgh, which faces ferocious weather from its perch on the North Sea, an estimated 250 meters of land was lost to erosion between 1600 and 1850. Locals have grown accustomed to storms, landslides and sometimes deadly floods — one flood in 1953 killed 76 people across Norfolk. But over the past few decades, things have been changing faster than residents expected, and scientists are trying to understand how global warming might be making the destruction worse.
Losing the place you call home to an inexorable process is a unique kind of grief, but in Happisburgh that grief is compounded by centuries of history. Traces of pre-humanity have been found in the village dating back almost a million years. Axes, flints and other tools as much as 950,000 years old have been discovered on its beach, including a set of footprints dating back 800,000 years, the oldest found in Europe. Like everything else, they were swept away by the tide, though not before archaeologists were able to take casts.
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Happisburgh is also a tourist attraction, boasting a 14th century church, a beautiful stretch of bucket-and-spade coastline and a lighthouse built in 1790 — the oldest working lighthouse in the region. The village’s local pub, The Hill House, dates back to at least 1540 and once hosted Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle (it inspired his story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”). Even on a bright January day, the constant thump of the sea against the cliff is audible from its rooms, where leaflets tell guests The Hill House will be “preserved for as long as the sea does not engulf Happisburgh.”
“This is our house and our business,” says Clive Stockton, who has owned the pub with his wife Sue for the past 31 years. “When this goes we are destitute.” Stockton estimates The Hill House has about 20 years left.
The problem is the cliff. In Happisburgh, and along the rest of a 21-mile stretch of north Norfolk coast, it’s made up of sand, clay and silt — not solid enough to hold back the volatile North Sea, where heavier rain, higher tides and rising sea levels are predicted due to climate change. By 2100 local sea levels are expected to increase by at least a foot, and possibly as much as three feet. Coastal erosion maps published by the North Norfolk District Council show a large swathe of the village threatened by 2055. By 2105 both the pub and church will be underwater.
In the early 2000s, the district council decided not to renew the sea defenses protecting the village, noting in its management plan that the risk to property and community was “not sufficient to economically justify building new defenses along this frontage.” Today there is a rock “bund,” crowdfunded by the community in the 1990s, that protects the foot of the cliff and bought residents some time. But other engineered defenses — like revetments, sloping wooden structures to protect the beach; or groins, which stick out into the sea perpendicular to the land to catch drifting sediment — would cost many millions. Ironically, the cliff’s archaeological value has also earned it a special designation, “site of special scientific interest,” that means the land has to be allowed to erode so that further discoveries can emerge.
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Faster erosion in recent years is considered the result of lacking defenses; a phenomenon known as “coastal catchup” means that erosion accelerates once such defenses are removed. Many residents are angry at the decision. “We do seem to be the patsy,” says Stockton. “We seem to be stuck with a pre-ordained decision that Happisburgh cannot be defended.” A local campaign group, “SHAG,” which stands for Save Happisburgh Action Group, regularly campaigns for new defenses.
The frustration is understandable, given the village’s long history, and the fact that other sites on either side of Happisburgh are protected. Bacton, just a few miles to the north, has benefited from a sandscaping project partially funded by oil and gas companies Shell and Perenco to defend the Bacton Gas Terminal, which processes a large proportion of the natural gas used to heat and light the UK. To the south, Sea Palling and nearby areas are protected by a sea wall and rock reefs off the beach, due to the risk of flooding.
Rising sea levels are expected to change tides and wave heights, which could accelerate things further. Heavier rain in a warmer climate can also lead to more cliff collapse, though the overall impact of climate change is complex and site-specific, says Laurent Amoudry, principal scientist at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre and head of a project measuring the climate’s impact on coastal flooding and erosion. Usually, natural features like dunes would have the space to move landwards while maintaining their size, but in the UK, “where very little on the coast is actually natural anymore… you don’t have the space to roll back,” Amoudry says.
Managed retreat — moving people and buildings back to accommodate the sea — is one likely course of action. A £3 million government-funded initiative to buy Happisburgh homes and offer residents planning permission to build inland ended in 2011, and another government-funded project started last year will explore options that include temporary buildings and funds to help residents move. Solutions for historic commercial spaces, like the church and pub, are less clear. In Victorian times, a 14th century church in nearby Sidestrand was deconstructed and reconstructed further inland, but that’s unlikely to happen here.
Whether it likes it or not, Happisburgh is destined to become a case study in adaptation. It’s not possible to hold back the rising sea, but it should be possible to help people cope with it. Wildlife habitats such as salt marshes can help protect the coast, but would also mean reshaping that coast into somewhere less habitable for humans.
Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, a government advisory body, has been blunt in its assessment that many coastal communities like Happisburgh are “unviable.” Last year, a report found that almost 200,000 properties around England may have to be abandoned because they are in places where defenses are too expensive or technically impossible.
“There are these difficult decisions to make. Our current approach is not sustainable in the long term under intensifying climate change and rising sea levels,” says Richard Dawson, a member of the committee and professor of earth systems engineering at Newcastle University. “We have to start to plan out for these transitions now. You can’t just tell a community ‘you’ve got to move out in the next couple of years.’ We’ve got to be honest and upfront about how far our budgets for coastal protections go.”
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