“The real conflict of the beach is not between sea and shore [...] but between Man and Nature. On the beach, Nature has achieved a dynamic equilibrium that is alien to Man and his static sense of equilibrium. Once a line has been established, whether it be a shoreline or a property line, Man unreasonably expects it to stay put.” The quote, by Gary Soucie from an article in The Smithsonian, is probably more relevant now than in 1973 when it was written.
Soucie uses the term ‘dynamic equilibrium’, which means that a system is in a state of constant flux, and is happy to stay that way. A natural coastline is a good example. The coastline is not meant to be fixed in one place; it is supposed to flex and morph according to the sea conditions, to erode during storms and accrete during calm periods.
Forecast: UK + Ireland
People don’t understand the concept of dynamic equilibrium when it comes to coastlines. We build a human structure on a mobile interface, and then we complain when it moves.
Then, instead of moving it somewhere else, we build another structure to try to protect it. We try to ‘fix’ the coastline in one place because we can’t accept that it is supposed to move. We think that a fixed structure designed by humans will work better than a flexible system evolved over millions of years.
The coastal engineering work that was proposed at Doughmore Beach in Western Ireland is a classic example of what Soucie was talking about. A golf course has been built on top of a highly mobile beach-dune system, located on one of the most energetic coastlines in the world. Not surprisingly, the golf course is being threatened by the natural behaviour of the beach-dune system.
After the extreme winter of 2013/2014, when major erosion occurred, not just in Ireland but along the entire coast of western Europe, the proprietors of the golf course (a company owned by Donald Trump) decided they would try to stop the sea invading their property. This would be done by installing some solid structures to ‘fix’ the coastline in place. The intention was to immobilise a mobile interface. To hold back nature.
Doughmore Strand is inside a nature reserve called the Carrowmore Dunes Special Area of Conservation. It consists of a gently-sloping sandy beach with a steeper cobblestone shore called a storm ridge. Then there is a system of dunes and, behind that, there is a flatter area called a flood plain.
The way a system like this works is quite simple: In largish waves, the energy is dissipated by the beach itself, predominantly by the cobblestones at the top of the beach. In stormier conditions, the wave energy starts to encroach on the dunes and cause a certain amount of erosion, effectively moving the land-sea interface inland. The water might also snake its way through the dunes and temporarily fill up some of the flood plain.
Then, during the intervening calm periods, the sediments gradually come back, slowly moving the land-sea interface seaward again. This is a problematical concept for the people who want to protect their golf course. You see, the sediment might take years or even decades to come back. And people don’t want to wait that long.
In fact, it might take even longer due to human interference. Examples of this are (a) the removal of cobblestones to build roads, along with other sand-mining activities in the past, which has made the system more vulnerable to erosion; (b) the coastal sediment deficit to the blocking of rivers by large dams, and (c) more big storms expected as a consequence of climate change.
The scheme that was originally proposed to protect the golf course would have been a monstrosity. It was an artificial structure called a ‘rock-armour toe berm’ – similar in appearance to the existing cobblestone beach, but made of large, immovable rocks. It would have been 2,500 metres long, six metres high and 25 metres wide. It would have obliterated the existing cobblestone beach and replaced it with a man-made, fixed imitation. The following are just some of the problems it would have caused;
*To build the thing, an immense amount of rock would have needed to be transported across the fragile dunes, in thousands of truckloads.
*The wall would have concentrated a large amount of wave energy in front of the structure, quickly eroding the beach away.
*The wave energy would have been constricted at each end of the structure, leading to enhanced erosion at those points.
*Due to the existence of surges called infragravity waves, people walking along the beach during a large swell could have been trapped against the wall.
*The surf would have been seriously affected due to backwash.
*Inevitably, the structure would have failed sometime in the future, costing more money in the long run.
In 2017, in response to growing local and global pressure by the #NatureTrumpsWalls campaign, spearheaded by Save the Waves, with over 100,000 signatures and over 700 letters of objection, the developers decided to reduce the scale of the project. Instead of the original atrocity, they proposed two separate structures at either end of the beach, 650 and 250 metres in length respectively.
At first sight, this seemed better than the original proposal, but in reality it could actually cause even more problems. Crucially, erosion concentrated at either end of the structures would have had serious knock-on effects. Andrew Cooper, Professor of Coastal Studies at Ulster University, explains: “If we build a short stretch of seawall, the edges are very vulnerable [and] go back even more quickly than the areas further away from the sea defences. The effect of that usually is to come along and build more sea defences adjacent to the ones that are already there.
“And it’s a kind of domino effect: we end up starting small, then we’ve got to extend those, those in turn create a further problem and we extend them further, and before you know it we end up armouring much bigger areas than we originally intended.”
However, an appeal was sent to Ireland’s national planning appeal board, An Bord Pleanála and, after another two years of struggle, miraculously, a few weeks back, it was officially rejected. That’s right; we won.
In other words, exacerbated erosion at each end of the structure would lead to the structures being extended in the future, ending up with a wall the same size or even bigger than the original one.
This is a really important issue. It goes deeper than the mere prospect of ruining a natural beach with a man-made structure; it shows how some people view nature and our place in it. The prospect of ever more coastal structures needing to be build gives coastal engineers a kind of self-perpetuating business opportunity.
Some of them are so arrogant that they think they can keep replacing natural systems that evolved over millions of years with artificial structures designed by humans, until we end up with a world full of grotesque imitations of nature.
Anyway, that second proposal was approved by the County Clare local council in December 2017, and many people thought the battle had been lost.
However, an appeal was sent to Ireland’s national planning appeal board, An Bord Pleanála and, after another two years of struggle, miraculously, a few weeks back, it was officially rejected.
That’s right; we won.
Earlier this month An Bord Pleanála formally rejected the plan, based on the adverse impacts to the dune ecosystem. They pointed out that one of the main objectives of the Carrowmore Dunes Special Area of Conservation is to maintain the natural circulation of sediment and organic matter without any physical obstructions.
The board wasn’t satisfied that this simple condition would be met if the wall were built: “The Board is not satisfied that the proposed development would not result in adverse effects on the physical structure, functionality and sediment supply of dune habitat within the Carrowmore Dunes Special Area of Conservation. [therefore] it is precluded from granting permission.”
Interestingly, the Board decided that the fact that the wall would affect the visual quality in the area and the ‘amenity value’ of the beach, weren’t good enough reasons on their own to reject the proposal.
In summary, the original wall at Doughmore would have been an environmental disaster. Now, thanks to several years of persistent local and international pressure, the project has finally been rejected. That’s really great news. Not just because Doughmore Strand has been saved, but because it has been saved for the right reasons. The final decision was made based on scientific knowledge rather than economics or short-term human interests.
It sets a precedent for the protection of the rest of Ireland’s magnificent but fragile coastline, and hopefully will do so further afield. It also shows how grassroots environmental campaigning can really make a difference, and that we should never, ever give up.