A 2020 report by the Committee on Climate Change, on which Hall sits as an expert on coastal erosion and flooding, found 1.2m homes at significant risk of flooding and a further 100,000 subject to coastal erosion by 2080 – which, although it sounds safely distant, will be within the lifetime of most of those born so far this century.
Two years ago, the US-based climate change research group Climate Central went further. It produced a map showing areas of the UK at risk of being underwater by 2050. They included sections of north Norfolk, all of the Lincolnshire coast and much of Cambridgeshire, along with parts of East Yorkshire, Merseyside and the Bristol area. According to the group, this would happen even if “moderate” attempts were made to combat climate change.
Such predictions are based on highly complex, and disputed, modelling, yet there are significant warning signs that such an outcome is growing rapidly more plausible. Last month, scientists monitoring the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, an ice shelf the size of Great Britain, warned it is in danger of collapse.
“It’s being melted from below by warm ocean waters, causing it to lose its grip on the underwater mountain,” said Peter Davis from British Antarctic Survey and the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.
He said research suggested that the ice shelf will begin to break apart within two decades. Should there be a complete collapse, it would lead to a highly consequential rise in sea levels of 60cm. That may be a worst-case scenario, but it will almost certainly have a notable impact on the British coastline.
In a sense Norfolk is a real-time lesson in how weather and sea can drastically alter a landscape. After the Dunes Cafe was dismantled, a chef called Alex Clare set up a mobile silver Airstream cafe to cater to locals and visitors at the car park next to where the cafe once stood. He’s had to move the Airstream four times in eight months, as sections of the dunes on which the car park sits have collapsed into the sea under pressure from storms and high tides.
“In the last two weeks,” Clare told me, “a strip about as long as this caravan has disappeared. You hear about erosion, but you don’t know what it means, what it involves, until you witness it. And it’s a shock to see the physical transformation.”
The car park owner has tried to slow the erosion by laying down large concrete blocks on the beach, but it’s the definition of a losing battle.
Winterton’s coast possesses a bleak beauty, enhanced by the fact that the village sits back from the sea, behind a broad wall of dunes. By contrast, at Hemsby, a mile or so south, the town, with its amusement arcades and fairgrounds, stretches all the way to the shoreline. Four years ago, there was a line of seven chalets close to the edge of the sandy cliffs that drop down to the beach.
They all had to be knocked down as the land beneath them began to fall into the sea. The local council is looking at sea defences, but the only workable answer involves large-scale investment and a major process of sandscaping. That is what took place at Bacton, 15 miles north along the coast from Winterton.