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Climate change at the coast

Our coast is especially vulnerable to climate change, as it will experience the terrestrial changes and changes to marine processes.

The coast is uniquely exposed to climate change, due to the effects of:

  • temperature and rainfall changes on land
  • rising sea level and changes in erosion and deposition

Most coastal processes have always changed over time. But there’s growing evidence that key processes are changing more rapidly now than in the 20th century.

Sea-level rise

Central areas of Scotland have benefited in the past from emergence – i.e. sea levels falling relative to the land as a result of glacial rebound. But sea-level rise overtook this process at some point in the 20th century.

The whole of Scotland is now experiencing relative sea-level rise and all future projections expect the rate of this rise to speed up.

Learn about Scotland’s sea-level history.

Find out about present and future sea levels.

Sediment supply

Sediment deposited along our soft shorelines controls their stability:

  • surplus sediment can promote accretion
  • removal of sediment can cause erosion

Coastal sediment supply is thought to be at an all-time low, in part due to riverbank and coastal defences. Unsuitable defences can transfer erosion along the coast, so it’s important to manage sediment supply within coastal zones.

Storm surges

Storm surges can cause significant coastal damage. Coastal managers and anyone who lives or works near the coast will want to know about any change in the frequency or intensity of surges.

The penultimate set of UK Climate Projections (UKCIP 2004) suggested that storms affecting Scotland and the UK might increase in frequency. But the most recent UK Climate Projections (UKCP09) suggest that the frequency of surges is unlikely to change much.

Combined risks

Flooding events can often coincide with other weather events. At the coast, we must often consider the combined risks of:

  • marine inundation
  • river flooding
  • pluvial (rainfall related) flooding in urban areas

Find out more about flooding on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) website.

Scottish Natural Heritage research

SNH continues to carry out research into coastal climate change, including relative sea-level rise and its impacts. We publish research findings on this website as they become available.

Find out more about geodiversity and climate change.

Learn about the marine impacts of climate change.