Future proofing Scotland’s remote coastal areas: evaluation of the potential for nature-based coastal adaptation


Restoring natural coastal systems is increasingly viewed as an effective strategy to adapt and enhance resilience to the adverse effects of climate change in coastal areas, which are projected to experience severe impacts due to increased exposure to coastal flooding and erosion hazards under rising sea levels (IPCC, 2019). Growing numbers of approaches to restore coastal dynamics by working with natural processes to manage vulnerable coastal areas, including beach nourishment, dune rebuilding, wetland restoration and managed retreat, have emerged as key nature-based solutions (NBS) in the past decade (e.g. Temmerman et al., 2013). In many cases, these approaches have been implemented as demonstration projects in protected areas, in estuaries or fronting urban, high-density settlements (Bridges et al., 2018). However, often remote and sparsely populated rural areas can still have surprisingly relevant levels of coastal occupation, from buildings, infrastructure, cultural heritage and resources that connect these communities and sustain rural livelihoods. As such, robust adaptation approaches that are specifically suited to the challenges of rural coastal areas need to be urgently considered, embedding interrelated aspects such as the evidence-base on coastal environmental change, now and in the future, and associated risks to communities, coupled with the legal and policy frameworks, sustainable financing, government and community support necessary to identify and implement rural coastal adaptation options.

In Scotland the vast majority of the coast is characterized as rural, but with important distinctions between accessible and remote rural and, notably, with present and future erosion and flooding placing relevant assets at risk across all coastal cells in Scotland (Hansom et al., 2017). Since 2016 the Scottish Government’s Dynamic Coast project [www.dynamiccoast.com] has transformed the evidence base of past, recent and anticipated coastal change across Scotland and further enhancements expect in winter 2020/1. Whilst this is rekindling interest in targeted coastal planning instruments such as Shoreline Management Plans, an urban-rural divide remains, leaving non-urban shores disproportionately under-resourced in monitoring, detailed planning policies and dedicated funding mechanisms to increase resilience and implement coastal adaptation actions. Research in this area is thus urgently needed, to identify the rural areas requiring adaptation, the suite of NBS that can be used and the policy, financing and social enablers that can better support NBS implementation. The recently announced and unprecedented provision of ~£12m of Scottish Government funding for coastal adaptation, means that this research project is extremely timely and would directly support proactive adaptation to rural coastal climate change (Brown et al., 2017).

This project will thus integrate and extend the data-rich context made possible by Dynamic Coast project, in order to support local decisions for implementing NBS in rural Scotland. It builds on the latest Dynamic Coast research and aims to investigate coastal processes in vulnerable low-density coastal areas and work with partners to identify options for implementing nature-based adaptation measures that increase environmental and societal resilience of rural coastal communities to erosion and flood risks in a changing climate. The specific objectives will be to:

1) Perform a national-scale analysis of the suitability of NBS for rural coastal areas using the extensive datasets from Dynamic Coast and SEPA, to inform opportunity mapping from a physical, social-science and governance perspective.

2) In specific representative coastal hazard hotspots, examine coastal-change processes to identify which NBS are best suited for improving the resilience of rural coastal areas from increased coastal hazards due to climatic and environmental change.

3) Perform a multilevel governance assessment of Scottish coastal areas to explore national, regional and local windows of opportunity to implement nature-based adaptation measures in low-density coastal areas.

4) Explore how rural coastal communities and stakeholders perceive and support the implementation of nature-based coastal adaptation approaches for addressing present and future coastal hazards.

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Image Captions

View of the Ullapool coast in the NW Highlands, where coastal occupation developed on a low-lying gravel fan-delta.


Building on Dynamic Coast phase 1 and 2 outcomes, this project will implement a tiered approach that combines spatial and statistical analysis, remote sensing, field monitoring techniques, numerical modelling and social-ecological systems analysis in order to generate novel understanding of nature-based coastal adaptation and resilience to coastal hazards in low-density coastal areas.

A range of geospatial methods will be used to analyse and aggregate information on national and regional aspects that are relevant for characterizing the potential for NBS. This will include the development of spatial datasets on the coastal geomorphological features that provide natural coastal flooding and erosion protection, as well as integration with the latest Whole Coast Assessment, which identifies in detail the distribution of assets, physical and social vulnerability across the coast of Scotland. This analysis, alongside results from Muir’s 2020 IAPETUS2 PhD, will inform a local scale analysis that incorporates field-based investigation of coastal change dynamics (e.g. topographic monitoring, UAV) with exploratory numerical modelling, in order to understand the process-response relationships that drive the present and future evolution of representative coastal areas (including Dynamic Coast adaptation exemplar Super sites). These demonstration areas are expected to either embed ongoing nature-based coastal adaptation projects or provide exemplars for exploring their use by developing modelling-based scenarios. By exploring a socio-ecological and socio-geomorphological approach (Naylor et al., 2019, 2020), results from the site-based analysis will feed into the development of storylines that integrate plausible scenarios of coastal change with different nature-based coastal adaptation and protection options. These will be considered by local communities and stakeholders from the existing network of Dynamic Coast public sector and private partners, in order to identify the willingness to support NBS and also the technical, financial and governance pathways (Brown et al. 2017) for wider implementation of nature-based coastal adaptation for climate resilient rural coasts.

Project findings will contribute to the evidence-based for managing coastal vulnerability and enhancing natural coastal resilience in line with Scottish Government priorities, and the articulation with the Dynamic Coast project will maximize shared research benefits from ongoing research on coastal modelling, strong institutional links with Supersite partners, government agencies and local authorities. To achieve this the student will be supervised by a multi-institutional team composed of award-winning, globally leading scientists in the Universities of Stirling (Loureiro), Glasgow (Naylor) and Dynamic Coast (Rennie).

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review; compilation and analysis of spatial datasets; suitability mapping; field visits; liaison with Dynamic Coast international, national and local partners. Attendance of British Society for Geomorphology postgraduate workshop and annual conference.

Year 2

Hotspot analysis; field monitoring; coastal change modelling; site-specific NBS evaluation; attendance of European Geosciences Union 2023 annual conference.

Year 3

Multilevel governance assessment; community and stakeholder surveying and analysis; attendance of ECSA 59 or NBS-specific international conference.

Year 3.5

Finalize the writing of manuscripts/chapters; submit thesis.

& Skills

The student will receive extensive training-through-research under the guidance of the supervisory team, which will be complemented by specific training activities to equip the student with the skills and expertise to become an independent researcher. Specific training includes programming for statistical analysis and data integration; GIS for geospatial analysis; fieldwork planning and instrumentation; numerical modelling; policy analysis as well as interview and survey design and also qualitative data analysis. This will be complemented by training in core scientific skills (writing, presentation and communication) and transferable skills (data management, exploitation of results). The student will also benefit from liaison with the Dynamic Coast project team and partners, improving the employability of the candidate. The student will participate in IAPETUS2 training, which will complement the personal training plan.

References & further reading

Bon de Sousa et al., 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeog.2018.07.023

Bridges et al, 2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.21079/11681/27929.

Brown (Naylor) et al, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su9081408

Hansom (Rennie) et al, 2017. Dynamic Coast – National Coastal Change Assessment: Vulnerability Assessment, CRW2014/2

IPCC, 2019. Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. Partner, D.C. et al. (Eds.), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Masselink (Rennie) et al, 2020. https://doi.org/10.14465/2020.arc08.cgm

Naylor et al, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-019-01530-7

Naylor et al, 2020. https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu2020-20334

Temmerman et al, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12859

Further Information

For more details contact Dr Carlos Loureiro [carlos.loureiro@stir.ac.uk]

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