When we think about rising sea levels and climate migration, it is not something that we associate with the UK, but in this blog, we will look into how (much like the climate crisis in general) this is a global issue and may be closer to home than we think.  

This blog focuses on how the physical implications of climate change in Wales, sea-level rise and extreme weather events have started to affect Welsh coastal communities. 

Sea Level Rise

The rising of sea levels is one of the most instantaneous impacts of the climate crisis. Sea-level rise increases the frequency and severity of storm surges which can cause devastating flooding in coastal areas (Mackie et al., 2020). Understanding the severity of this issue is important as it can help communities adapt and mitigate the impacts of the ever-changing coastline (Mackie et al., 2020). 

There are two main reasons for this rise in sea levels. The first is thermal expansion; this is when the ocean warms up and as the temperature rises the volume of the water increases. Secondly is glacial melting; this means additional water is being added to our oceans as the ice sheets melt (British Geological Survey, 2022). 

As the ice sheets melt, this causes a gravitational pull as they lose mass, which causes the land to dip. This is called glacial rebound and is one of the reasons sea-level rise is more common in the south of England and Wales as the land has dipped lower than in the North of England and Scotland –the further away the land is from the ice sheets, the greater the effect of gravitational pull (Englander, King and King, 2021, p.4).

Image: Seymour, T. Victorian Sea Defences, Wales 2022, Photograph.

There is less pressure to spend large amounts of money on sea defences in rural areas in comparison to places like London (IPCC, 2015). If high emissions continue, rural coastal regions will be the most vulnerable to a Managed Retreat plan; which is when communities will have to leave their homes as the coastline gradually takes over (Englander, King and King, 2021, pp. 15 - 17).

Extreme weather events and their impacts are increasingly being felt. On top of this, sea levels have drastically risen beyond natural progression, in line with historical data (Englander, King and King, 2021, p.7). This poses a significant threat to low-lying areas across the globe, which may one day become submerged. This will lead “…to inundation and erosion of coastlines and contamination of freshwater reserves and food crops” (Poh et al., 2018) as well as the possibility of forced displacement for these communities (Demos, T. 2016, p.63).

How does this affect Wales?

60% of Wales is coastal, with some areas lying below the tide line (Lee and Thomas, 2021). 2,126 properties in Wales are at risk of coastal erosion if sea defences are not built or if current sea defences are not maintained (Lee and Thomas, 2021).

Fairbourne is a village that is perched on the edge of Cardigan Bay and is home to 1,031 people. Fairbourne was part of the historic county of Meirionnydd. The coastal area was originally salt marshes and slightly higher grazing lands. In 2019 it was deemed no longer practically or economically possible to maintain the existing sea defences in Fairbourne. Fairbourne will be the first village in the UK to action a managed retreat plan (Wall, 2019). Although this has happened on farmland and nature reserves in places like Sussex, Essex and Somerset, it was not until 2019 that a whole community's livelihood would be lost to the sea (Weymouth, 2016).

(Fairbourne, n.d.)

Climate Migration and the Geneva Convention

There are many scientific accounts that warn of " …a near-future of forced displacement on a massive scale due to climate change" (Demos, 2016, p63). While some coastal communities and islands seem to currently be fairly resilient and adaptable to the oddities of sea-level change, however, it is hard to tell how these communities will adapt when there is a considerable increase in destructive weather events which will have an increased negative effect on erosion, freshwater supplies, infrastructure, human settlements, health, agriculture and trade (Demos, 2016, pp 67 -68). 


Seymour, T. Geoff's Boatyard, Wales, 2022, Photograph.

The Geneva Convention “…only grants refugee status for those fleeing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social association, or political opinion" (Demos, 2016, p.76). The term "Environmental Refugees" has been recognised and defined by the United National Environment Programme Policy (1985) as those people who have been forced to leave their homes, temporarily or permanently due to biological changes in the ecosystem that make their environment unsuitable to continue to live in (Jiří Novosák and Stojanov, 2009, p.96).

However, this term has not yet been recognised by international law (Owen, 2019). There are some legal theorists who believe in offering environmental refugees recognition under the Geneva Convention that will allow people whose homes will immanently be affected by the climate crisis the confidence that they are protected by law and allow them the independence to move to higher ground (Englander, King and King, 2021, p.17).

Blog Written By Tess Seymour
Blog Image: Seymour, T. View From The Fort, North Wales 2022, Photograph.

References & Sources

British Geological Survey. (2022). Impacts of climate change. [online] Available at: https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discovering-geology/climate-change/impacts-of-climate-change/.

Demos, T.J. (2016). Decolonizing nature : contemporary art and the politics of ecology. Berlin: Sternberg Press, pp.19–86.

Demos, T.J. (2017). Against the anthropocene : visual culture and environment today. Berlin: Sternberg Press, pp.163–173.

Demos, T.J. (2020). Beyond the world’s end : arts of living at the crossing. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.165–173.

Duffy, S., Hughes, G. and Messenger, S. (2021). Climate change and Wales: Where we are in charts. BBC News. [online] 31 Oct. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-58706283 [Accessed 31 Jan. 2022].

Englander, J., King, A. and King, D. (2021). Moving to higher ground : rising sea level and the path forward. Boca Raton, Fl: The Science Bookshelf, pp.4–105.

Ghosh, A. (2017). The Great Derangement : Climate Change And The Unthinkable. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, pp.36–37.

Historic Environment and Climate Change in Wales Sector Adaptation Plan Historic Environment Group Climate Change Subgroup. (2020). [online] Available at: https://cadw.gov.wales/sites/default/files/2020-02/Adaptation%20Plan%20-%20FINAL%20WEB%20-%20English%20%281%29.pdf [Accessed 22 May 2022].

IPCC (2015). Chapter 4: Sea Level Rise and Implications for Low-Lying Islands, Coasts and Communities — Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. [online] Ipcc.ch. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/chapter/chapter-4-sea-level-rise-and-implications-for-low-lying-islands-coasts-and-communities/.

Jiří Novosák and Stojanov, R. (2009). Migration, development and environment : migration processes from the perspective of environmental change and development approach at the beginning of the 21st century. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, p.96.

Lee, S. and Thomas, G. (2021). Climate change: Size of Wales may change due to coastal erosion. BBC News. [online] 12 Nov. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-59223819 [Accessed 4 Feb. 2022].

Lindsey, R. (2020). Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. [online] Climate.gov. Available at: https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide.

Mackie, E., Shuckburgh, E., Jones, D. and Vaughan, D. (2020). How climate change is affecting sea levels. Weather. doi:10.1002/wea.3716.

Natural Resource Wales. (2022). Online. Available at: https://naturalresources.wales/flooding/check-your-flood-risk-by-postcode [Accessed 22 May 2022].

Owen, T. (2019). Climate Refugees - an Addition to Existing Paradigms or a New Framework Altogether? Dissertation. pp.1–10.

Parr, J. (2022). Natural Resources Wales / Responding and recovering from Storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin. [online] naturalresources.wales. Available at: https://naturalresources.wales/about-us/news-and-events/blog/responding-and-recovering-from-storms-dudley-eunice-and-franklin/?lang=en [Accessed 22 May 2022].

Poh, P., Losada, I., Gattuso, J.-P., Hinkel, J., Khattabi, A., Mcinnes, K., Australia, Y., Saito, J., Sallenger, A., Nicholls, R., Santos, F., Amez, S., Spain, Wong, P., Losada, I., Gattuso, J.-P., Hinkel, J., Khattabi, A., Mcinnes, K. and Saito, Y. (2018). 5 Coastal Systems and Low-Lying Areas Coordinating Lead Authors: Lead Authors: Review Editors. [online] Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WGIIAR5-Chap5_FINAL.pdf.

Wall, T. (2019). ‘This is a wake-up call’: the villagers who could be Britain’s first climate refugees. The Guardian. [online] 18 May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/18/this-is-a-wake-up-call-the-villagers-who-could-be-britains-first-climate-refugees.

Weymouth, A. (2016). Fairbourne. Granta. [online] 16 Feb. Available at: https://granta.com/fairbourne/ [Accessed 22 May 2022].

Williams, A.T., Giardino, A. and Pranzini, E. (2016). Canons of Coastal Engineering in the United Kingdom: Seawalls/Groynes, a Century of Change? Journal of Coastal Research, 321, pp.1196–1211. doi:10.2112/jcoastres-d-15-00213.1.