Good Energy is collaborating with award-winning environmental photographer Toby Smith to produce a series of photo-essays visualising climate change in the UK. In this three-part special, Toby focuses on how climate change is impacting causing coastal erosion in the South of England. 

In this photo essay, Toby travels down the coast of Norfolk, visiting beaches and villages facing an uncertain future because of coastal erosion. 

Sea defenses made of large boulders are failing to protect the village of Happisburgh in Norfolk from rapid coastal erosion and landslip.

The coastal village of Happisburgh in Norfolk was once distant from the sea; separated from the waves by the now vanished parish of Whimpwell. The historic stone church and manor house date back to the 14th century but with the rapid advance of coastal erosion and rising sea levels are close to joining dozens of properties and acres of agricultural lands that have all been lost to the sea.

Long, aerial view of the aging sea defenses on the beaches stretching north and south or Happisburgh, Norfolk.

The Norfolk coast has been eroding steadily for almost 5000 years, but predicted sea-level rise and increased frequency of extreme weather due to climate change are massively accelerating the retreat. 

Waves break on the dilapidated sea defences protecting the village of Happisburgh, Norfolk from coastal erosion.

Coastal defences built in previous decades have slowed or reduced the loss but large sections of the coastline are now breached or in disrepair. Interventions across Norfolk are losing their effectiveness, leaving them, and the residences and businesses they protect, at serious risk. 

Cross section of the cliffs and soft geology found at Happisburgh, Norfolk.

The cliffs at Happisburgh range in height from six to ten metres and are a combination of clay, sand and silt. These shelves of soft material are exposed at high tide to the full energy of the North Sea. During storms or even light onshore winds, waves attack the shore aggressively, causing frequent landslides that expose cabling, sewers and tree roots. From ashore the cliff-line is dangerously steep, mobile and unstable, with footpaths, roadways, foundations and gardens cracking and slipping down frequently. 

Aerial view of the historic church and village of Sea Palling, showing the extent and risk of coastal erosion.

A 2020 report by the Climate Change Committee concluded that 1.2m British homes are at significant risk of flooding and a further 100,000 subject to coastal erosion by 2080. Over 8,900 individual UK properties are at immediate risk from coastal erosion, with 1,200 of those in areas, like much of Norfolk, without effective defences. Earlier this year, Climate Central released an interactive map showing the areas of UK at the greatest risk, painting a grave picture for the East of England in general. 

Aerial view of the village of Sea Palling, showing the rock breakwaters built in 2015 by the Environment Agency.

There is no doubt that major investment will be found to protect infrastructure in major cities and industrial areas, but the future is more uncertain for isolated villages and communities at odds with the limited budgets of local authorities. Recent history suggests that the investment in construction or repair of sea defences along these coasts is only delaying the inevitable. 

Long aerial view of the promenade and beach chalets of Winterton Bay that are at major risk if coastal erosion.

Owners of property at risk from coastal erosion currently have no access to any national compensation if their property is damaged or destroyed.  With the risks clearly evident from postcode maps or remote surveys, many will find securing affordable private insurance very difficult. This climate injustice is forcing individuals to make bleak calculations about the rapidly increasing risk and decreasing value of their own properties. This offers stark comparison with the new national ‘Flood Re’ scheme, introduced in 2016 which ensures robust and affordable insurance for inland flood victims until 2039. 

Aerial view of Winterton Bay showing the effect of longshore drift and rapid erosion.

Local authorities nationally are spending more capital on flood defences, but are struggling to keep pace with the increasing damage and effect of climate change. Cost-benefit analysis of investment schemes crunching the economics of hundreds of kilometres of coastline against 100 years of uncertainty will mean many areas must regrettably be left undefended or even actively demolished. 

Read some of Toby’s other photo essays.