Climate change and the A487
It’s not often that very strong winds and gales in St Brides Bay penetrate far into the Brandybrook valley, but the storms in late January 2014 were something different and we lost about a dozen trees on our patch at Roch Mill. As all locals know, with any serious storm there’s a fair chance that the A487 road will be closed across Newgale beach. So, with gales forecast, we were expecting a bit of extra traffic on our minor road at Roch Bridge. This C-class road doubles as the emergency “by-pass”, all 7km of it. The narrow twisty lanes are not well suited to heavy A-road traffic but once in a while, it’s liveable with. Mind you, I’m not so sure the hundreds of delayed travellers would agree.
Our first realisation that this had happened in a big way was when a bus started backing onto our driveway, along with a couple of other vehicles!
Even then we didn’t appreciate quite how much damage had been inflicted on Newgale’s pebble beach until we took a drive down there a few hours later. The abandoned bus was a new feature but, as the established community will tell you, a blocked A487 is nothing new. Picture archives show that a similar storm occurred in 1989, and many times before that. Indeed, at one stage the Duke of Edinburgh pub (then called the Bridge Inn) used to stand on the beach side of the road but was abandoned after a fierce storm in 1897.
Nevertheless, there was something different about the storm of 2014. It’s difficult to judge quite how ferocious it was in absolute terms but it occurred at a time when realisation is finally dawning that the world is heating up. Since the end of the industrial revolution the earth has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius and sixteen out of the last 17 years have been the warmest on record, with 2016 the hottest ever.
Overwhelming professional opinion amongst climate scientists is that we are the primary cause; us, mankind, through the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – which pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
The main gas responsible for global warming is carbon dioxide (CO2), but methane and other gases, though fewer, are equally important as they are many times more effective in creating a “blanket” around the Earth that stops heat from escaping into space. As the planet gets hotter the oceans expand, glacial ice melts, and sea ice reduces.
For centuries sea levels have been pretty stable but at the end of the industrial revolution, they started to rise. Just 1mm per year at first, then 2mm, and more recently by over 3mm; It might not seem very much but that’s more than 20cm over the period and unless we can reduce our carbon emissions this change is likely to accelerate and may even be unstoppable. Current predictions indicate sea level will rise by 1 metre or more by the end of the century.
Whilst rising sea levels are a very serious problem for the future there is a more immediate effect of global warming, namely, its impact on climate stability. It’s easy to get confused between climate and weather. Simply put, climate is the long-term pattern of weather events that reflects things like air pressure, temperature, humidity, wind and precipitation in a region.
Weather, on the other hand, is the day-to-day manifestation of a myriad of influences that brings sun or clouds, rain or snow, calm or storm and hot and cold to our local area. It’s nearly impossible to link individual weather events to climate but on average one can expect certain weather patterns to be fairly consistent from season to season with a mixture of mostly stable conditions punctuated by occasional extreme events. The main issue is that, with the world heating up, not only are those extreme events likely to become more frequent, they are also likely to become more severe.
Each year the area (and volume) of arctic sea ice reduces and last year reached a record minimum. With less ice more sunlight is absorbed, accelerating the trend towards warmer temperatures. Last year, some regions of the arctic saw temperatures 15C above normal! A warmer arctic is thought to be a major contributor to dramatic oscillations in the jet stream, which causes unusual weather patterns to occur, especially in northern Europe.
But not everyone I talk to is convinced about global warming and there are certainly some influential people around the world who deny it altogether. But with 97% of the world’s climate scientists saying it’s real (i.e., based on substantial evidence) you have to wonder if some of the gainsayers have alternative motives. Somewhat more understandable is the uncertainty shown by people who accept the evidence that global warming is real but fail to agree on its cause i.e. that man-made activities, such as burning fossil fuels, are to blame. Personally, I think the evidence is clear but, either way, the impact of global warming is truly scary.
So what about Newgale beach? I hear you ask. Extensive studies of the beach profile have shown that the sea really wants to push further inland and it’s only by repeatedly replacing the stones back where they came from that the road has been kept open. Increasingly, however, the beach profile is changing and its integrity being undermined. Under the relentless pounding of ferocious storms, it becomes ever more vulnerable to movement and breaching. A similar situation arose at Abereiddy where, eventually, the authorities decided to let nature take its course. Apparently, since abandoning attempts to protect the car park, the sea there has eroded the hard landscaping exactly as predicted.
In view of this evidence and the predictions of global warming, Pembrokeshire County Council (PCC) has decided they must anticipate a time when it will no longer be practicable to keep open the A487 Newgale beach road. There is, however, no way of knowing quite when this point will be reached and, from current predictions, it could easily be another 10 or 20 years. Consequently, their strategy is to plan now so that a preferred alternative route, finance for it, and its impact on local communities, can be fully investigated in good time, and the by-pass road established and operational well before the existing road is no longer serviceable.
Pembrokeshire County Council – Newgale Adaptation Plan.
Early on a detailed report was produced that examined the viability of maintaining the beach road in its present position. Recognising that doing nothing was not a good option it identified three possibilities:
- Build a defensive wall to protect the road;
- Elevate the road on a defensive wall; and,
- Build a road bridge.
For all three options it would be necessary to construct a substantial structure that could withstand repeated battering from Atlantic storms. Evidence from around the world, and even quite close to home in Amroth and Dawlish, shows that hard structures cause scouring of the beach, which undermines the defensive structure and leads to complete failure during severe storms.
To be effective a sea wall at Newgale would need to stand about 6m above the existing road, roughly level with the top of the Duke of Edinburgh pub. The A487 would either nestle behind the wall or ride on top of it. For many, the visual impact of such a structure was unacceptable as its sheer size would be both unattractive and an impediment to beach access – affecting both locals and the tourist trade.
Having ruled out keeping the road where it is, over a dozen other route options were considered including unrealistic detours like sending traffic via Letterston. Feedback was sought on each and many factors were highlighted. As you might expect, minimising disruption, maintaining the special qualities of the National Park and preserving Newgale Sands community interests were amongst the key issues discussed. One theme that everyone agreed on was the need to retain the “iconic view” across St Brides Bay as Newgale is approached by road from the south-east. This spectacle is highly valued by local people and is a stunning introduction to the National Park for tourists travelling along the A487 for the first time. I bet everyone reading this has seen a car pull-off unexpectedly into the lay-by at this point. Wouldn’t it be a great place for the National Park to put up a big sign saying, ‘Welcome to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’?
The many route options were quickly reduced to four and now, after further consideration, just two are being taken forward for more detailed study:
- Route 3c – essentially moving the road inland by about 60m, behind the pub; and,
- Route J – a completely new road crossing the valley about 1km back from the beach.
In addition to detailed consideration of the route the Council has initiated a study into the community impact of moving the A487. Through consultation, the contractors have sought to identify the key features that locals want to preserve and also what improvements might be desirable. Broadly speaking there is a strong desire to ensure that whichever route is chosen there remains some connectivity across the beach between north and south for cyclists and pedestrians. The existing road bridge is surely good for some years to come but eventually it will need replacing with a foot/cycle bridge, and this shouldn’t be ignored in the Adaptation Plan.
Some people argue for a new cafe/pub/surf shop to be created above the threatened area, but there is no financial provision nor legal requirement for this. Others would like to see improved access to the Brandybrook valley with paths, boardwalks, nature trails etc. Whilst these would undoubtedly prove popular and attract tourists there is a counter argument that such intrusions into the wetland would disturb (ruin?) the untouched natural beauty and rich wildlife haven that the Brandybrook valley embodies. Other issues under consideration are access to the beach; connectivity to Welsh Road (which runs from Newgale to Nolton); creation, protection and access to adequate parking provision; access to the new by-pass, and interim access to the various commercial premises affected by letting the sea encroach on Brandybrook valley.
If the beach is allowed to advance up the valley unhindered its ridge is predicted to move inland at up to 0.5m per year (on average). Faster at first as its profile changes to a more natural shape, much broader than the sharp profile that has been forced by repeatedly putting the stones back after big storms. At present, obstruction of the river mouth is minimised by frequently removing pebbles using a tracked excavator. If this isn’t maintained into the future then the wetland behind the beach will grow extensively – creating a marshland and enhancing its appeal to a wider range of wildlife but, perhaps, increasing the flood risk to properties further inland.
The Adaptation Plan aims to encourage and empower individuals and groups to lead the adaptation process and take decisions on what should be done and when. Money for the new road will be sought by PCC but, crucially, no money is expected to be allocated for implementation of the Adaptation Plan. Therefore, if the community’s wishes are to be realised then funding sources will need to be identified and bids made. It remains to be seen how much support will be given to the community in undertaking this task but it is clear that local people need a strong voice and considerable determination if they are to agree upon and then realise the potential that the Adaptation Plan has to offer.
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