Climate change has replaced pollution and overfishing as the biggest threat to the coasts of Britain, a study by the government’s Environment Agency has found.
Higher temperatures and rising sea levels have changed the nature of many of the fundamental problems faced by marine conservationists, said Barbara Young, the agency’s chief executive. “The good news is that major historical issues such as sewage pollution are being addressed and their impact reduced,” Baroness Young said.
“Sadly, other impacts, such as climate change, are becoming an increasing threat to the marine environment and those that depend on it.
The Environment Agency’s latest review of the marine environment found that coastal erosion, flooding and the effect of climate change on marine wildlife had increased the long-term risk to the British coastline.
“Climate change is significantly altering the marine environment and affecting populations of marine life,” the study says.
Average sea-surface temperatures around Britain have increased by between 0.5C and 1C over the past century, which has driven microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton further north.
“Warmer temperatures since the late 1980s have encouraged higher phytoplankton densities that have made our seas greener in colour,” the report says.
Changes in phytoplankton have also altered zooplankton, microscopic animals on which many fish such as cod feed. “This has contributed to falling cod populations. Cod and other species of fish are also moving north,” the report says.
Over the past 40 years, warmer seas have forced many marine animals and plants to move roughly the length of Britain toward the cooler seas of Scandinavia.
Sea levels are increasing by about a millimetre per year and the level of the highest tides and the average height of winter waves have increased. As a result, coastal erosion has increased, with 6 per cent of sites in England and Wales and 20 per cent of sites on the east coast eroding at more than a metre every year.
“The erosion of our coasts is likely to increase with climate change, with the cost of damage from erosion estimated at