On 16 February 1962 a storm caused the North Sea to rise up along the coast of Hamburg. The floodwaters claimed 300 lives and thousands of homes. That happened before the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that climate change might cause the sea level to rise between 20 and 80 centimetres by the end of this century.

The European coastline runs for some 170,000 kilometres through 20 of the 27 EU member states. In view of the continent’s vulnerability to the effects of rising seas and coastal erosion, the European Commission has allocated upwards of €13 million to two projects aimed at anticipating the impacts of climate change and safeguarding the coastline. According to the EU, adapting the coast to ward off the impending threats could reduce by up to a factor of four the cost of the damage if no action is taken in time. That’s why the 27 members have earmarked €6.5 million for Project THESEUS. Pooling the forces of 31 participating European institutions, this project is to gauge the potential impacts on the coastline and work out ways of adapting accordingly.

Cities not designed for future meteorological conditions

One fifth of the European shoreline is suffering from the effects of erosion. “In some spots the coast is receding by as much as 20 metres per year”, warns THESEUS project coordinator Barbara Zanuttigh from the University of Bologna. The most heavily affected country is Romania, with 60% of its coast at risk, followed by Poland with 55%. In Spain, at least four beaches have been replenished with successive shipments of sand to make up for erosion losses. The project’s researchers have already shown that 9% of the European shore could be flooded in the near future because it is less than five metres above sea level.

The researchers will have four years to assess the risks in eight representative coastal areas in order to extrapolate their results to the rest of the European shoreline. The areas are selected according to their vulnerability, social and industrial development and their ecosystems. One such zone is the Bay of Santander, which will be evaluated by scientists from the Institute of Environmental Hydraulics in Cantabria (IH). "Santander represents your typical coastal city, with tourism, industries and an airport," explains IH researcher Fernando Méndez. All those factors are vulnerable to the effects of climate change – as is the population itself. The problem is that many cities “were not designed for the meteorological conditions we may be seeing over the next few decades”, points out IH director Íñigo Losada.

Shared database for future coastal management efforts

The object of Project THESEUS is to analyse economic, environmental and social impacts and figure out the best strategies to contain the damage. The adaptive model will vary from one zone to another, but possible solutions include reinforcing defensive dykes and regenerating coastal wetlands."Only a sudden change will produce the kind of drastic upheavals along the coast that we are considering,” adds Losada.Project PEGASO, on the other hand, is aimed at implementing the European protocol for Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) along the Mediterranean coast. The point is to manage the coast jointly, rather than artificially dividing up a continuous natural element along national borders. Coordinated by the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the project is counting on input from 23 institutions in 15 countries, which are to study another 10 zones along the Mediterranean shores over the next four years.

The zones selected for the study are those most threatened by erosion, loss of biodiversity, or, as in the case of Venice, the rising sea level. If the project proves successful, the findings can be used to establish a similar protocol for the Black Sea. The experts intend to create a shared database for use in planning future coastal management efforts, which will also address the problems of excessive coastal urbanisation and pollution. "We absolutely must take action to mitigate the threats climate change holds in store for us,” urges Méndez.