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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Maintaining UK's geodiversity under a changing climate

by Sam Woor

What do you first think of when you hear the words ‘climate change’? Perhaps your mind jumps to the consequences of an altered planet. Rising sea levels...the threat of habitat destruction...species loss...or perhaps decreasing biodiversity? Whilst biodiversity loss is certainly a huge threat to global planetary function, it often dominates the spotlight of public and political concern compared to its overlooked cousin: geodiversity.

Geodiversity is the assemblage of abiotic components making up a landscape. It’s the inorganic things, like rocks and soils, through to larger-scale features like mountains and coastlines. Whilst geological processes such as mountain-building occur over millions of years, geomorphological processes are those happening at the Earth’s surface. They often occur on shorter timescales, resulting in the landscapes we inhabit, giving rise to much of the planet’s geodiversity. The UK is incredibly geodiverse at all scales, as evidenced by our spectacular landscapes. More locally, we inhabit an array of different surfaces and soils, the variety of which allows us to cultivate a huge range of crops, and mine a plethora of natural resources.  

Geodiversity is the assemblage of abiotic components making up a landscape. It’s the inorganic things, like rocks and soils, through to larger-scale features like mountains and coastlines.

The UK’s geodiversity is important for multiple reasons. Economically, we rely on soil quality as a basis for a productive agricultural sector. Tourism is another monetary boon, with millions of ‘geotourists’ flocking to places such as the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland each year. The financial value of geodiversity can be expanded by considering the costs of what it provides for us for free. Geodiversity helps prevent flooding by sequestering water in structures such as soils and aquifers, cliffs absorb natural wave energy during storm surges, and layers of sediments provide natural filtration to our drinking water.

However, it’s not just the financial benefits of the UK’s geodiversity which make it a key target for conservation. It’s also the immense intangible value that it affords. Many sites are incredibly culturally significant, presenting outstanding examples of ‘geoheritage’. Many well-known landmarks are geodiversity ‘hot spots’, including the UK’s only two natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the Jurassic Coast in southern England. Not only are these sites culturally and historically important, they are also of huge scientific significance. They can offer us insights into unique geological processes, through features like the formation of basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway, and even a record of life on ancient Earth, through fossil assemblages such as those of the Jurassic Coast. Faced with the uncertain future of climate change, should we be worried about the UK’s geodiversity?

Recently published by the Met Office Hadley Centre, the UK Climate Projections 2018 (UKCP18) offer the current best assessment of future climate change under various emissions scenarios. In short, we seem to be in for wetter winters and drier summers, with temperatures also higher than present. For example, the 2018 heatwave could become a bi-annual occurrence by 2050. Wetter winters means more moisture interacting with soil surfaces, creating greater levels of erosion through rainwater running down slopes. Soil erosion already poses problems for farmers as it reduces the agricultural productivity of land, with current degradation rates through both erosion and pollution resulting from poor farming practices. A 2018 report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) even suggested that current UK soil degradation levels warrant investments of £10 million per year to be managed effectively. Furthermore, Scottish Natural Heritage notes many regions will be more prone to waterlogging in this scenario. This increases the risk of slope instability, landslides and the rapid erosion of landforms of scientific interest, particularly in higher relief areas.  Intensification of winter rainfall looks set to pose severe problems for not only multiple business sectors which rely on geodiversity, but biodiversity too: soils and landforms are the key foundation for biological activity in all terrestrial ecosystems in the UK.

Compounding this is the creeping threat of sea level rise, with significant increases projected for the south of the UK. London, for instance, is “very likely” to experience a 0.53-1.15m increase by the end of the century. One of the UK’s greatest resources is our long, dramatic and incredibly geodiverse coastline. Processes of erosion over long periods of geological time have led to many of our most popular natural tourist attractions being formed in coastal regions, such as the aforementioned Giant’s Causeway and Jurassic Coast, as well as countless others. However, rising tides threaten the sustainability of these geoheritage tourism activities due to the increasing risk of coastal erosion and inundation. We now have entire industries built around these features and they provide significant economic benefits to local communities and the wider UK.  The Giant’s Causeway alone attracted over one million visitors in 2017, with the National Trust estimating over 70% were international tourists. The impacts on coastal geodiversity are incredibly wide-reaching. Whilst these processes of erosion and deposition are what resulted in coastal geodiversity in the first place, they might now be the cause of its destabilisation.

This all sounds very doom and gloom. As if it’s not enough that climate change will have devastating consequences for life on Earth, now the very ground under our feet is at stake! There is undoubtedly a pressing need to find creative, effective solutions to the threat to geodiversity. In this, the UK has emerged as a global leader, advocating for the risk to geodiversity to be pushed to the fore of the climate change agenda. The UK has established, for instance, the Scotland Geodiversity Charter (2013), the Geodiversity Charter for England (2014) and,  more significantly, the UK Geodiversity Action Plan (UKGAP). Coordinated by Natural England, UKGAP is intended to be a national framework outlining the UK’s geodiversity aims. Whilst it does include a brief promise to “manage and conserve geodiversity in response to climate change,” it places more emphasis on understanding, mapping and describing UK geodiversity. Sadly, geodiversity still suffers from endemic neglect within policy-making spheres and the public eye. In a recent report titled ‘Managing the coast in a changing climate’ by the Committee on Climate Change (established in 2008 to advise the UK government), there was no reference to coastal geoheritage nor its significant economic, cultural and scientific importance. The absence of policy responses stem partly from the inapplicability of traditional solutions to significant geodiversity. Whilst solutions such as hard-engineered sea defences exist, nobody wants to see the White Cliffs of Dover covered in rock armour to absorb the energy of increasingly ferocious storm surges. Geoconservation must consider the unique context of the economic and cultural value of geodiversity.

The maintenance of UK geological diversity is also complicated by the uneven distribution of the impacts of climate change. According to the UKCP18, sea level rise is disproportionately set to affect the south of the UK compared to the north. This means one-size-fits all approaches are inappropriate, making site-by-site risk management strategies necessary. This is exacerbated by the nature of geodiversity itself, presenting a complex assemblage of materials across a range of scales. For example, the thin, poorly vegetated and high-relief soils of the Scottish Highlands are likely to have completely different erosion rates under intensified winter rainfall than the thicker, sandy soils in low-relief East Anglia. Climate change is also merely one threat in a plethora of challenges. Factors such as urbanisation and increasing numbers of geotourists all pose problems for geodiversity which, along with climate change, present a complex web of interlinked pressures for the 21st century. The most robust management strategies must be considerate to these other factors, as well as their potential to amplify the impacts of climate change.

Geodiversity therefore presents an incredibly complex area of risk management for policy makers. Yet it can no longer simply be ignored. It would benefit greatly from increased integration with biodiversity conservation campaigns, as this would emphasise its importance in the wider ecosystem as the fundamental building block for living systems. However, geoconservation approaches will inevitably need significant financial investments. Natural England has highlighted this in Local Geodiversity Action Plan (LGAP) reports, citing the difficulties faced by a lack of funding and a common reliance on the voluntary sector. Without adequate investment it is naïve to expect local authorities to devote time and resources to geodiversity conservation in line with the UKGAP. Whilst cost-benefit approaches may offer a means of prioritising economically significant geodiversity, what constitutes cultural value is incredibly subjective. Deciding which geosites embody the most important intangible values worthy of investment cannot simply follow a pathway of economic logic.

The challenge going forward is increasing public and policy awareness of the issues posed to UK geodiversity to prevent potentially significant losses to our rich geological and geomorphological resources. When you next consider climate change, remember to spare a thought for the ground beneath your feet.


Illustration by Jess Baker

Sam Woor is currently pursuing a Master’s in Science and Engineering for Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) at University College London. A physical geographer by background, he will begin his DPhil at the University of Oxford in September 2019. His research focuses on the use of Arabian geoheritage, such as river and lack deposits, as archives of climatic change over the last 200,000 years. Besides academic work, Sam is also an assistant knowledge manager at weADAPT, a leading forum and platform disseminating climate change adaptation research and case study.


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