Coastal proximity and health: A moving target as climate changes?

This latest blog post is from Dr Mat White, who leads much of the work at the European Centre on how our coastal environments might support good health and wellbeing

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Mat writes…

I’ve never been a huge fan of New Year’s Eve. I love life and somehow it always reminds me of time slipping away, getting older, so many things unfinished, so many things unstarted. Or maybe I just get morbid because I never get invited to the cool parties. Well the transition from 2013-2014 was going to be different. My wife and I decided to spend it on the beach in Perranporth, a few miles south of Newquay, walking on the beach and watching the fireworks. The weather was already a bit ropey, pretty windy, plenty of rain but then at precisely 12.00 midnight, right on cue, the sky lit up and there was a huge roar from the sky. But this wasn’t a man-made pyrotechnic, it was a full throttle storm with nature’s firework display laughing at the puny rockets being fired down near the Waterfront pub on the beach.

Well I say it wasn’t a man-made display but who knows nowadays as it dawns on all us in the South West of England – and presumably elsewhere – that maybe climate change is a clear and present danger. Basically, apart from the odd day, the storm hasn’t stopped now for 8 weeks with freak winds, freak waves, freak tidal surges flooding many coastal towns and the constant news reports saying everything is the worst on record. One fact is indisputable, we’re not going anywhere on the trains any time soon now that Dawlish has failed in its valiant impression of King Canute. Yes, yes weather isn’t climate, but when the locals down here are all saying they’ve never seen anything like it, when our favourite Plymouth beaches at Bovisand have been totally – and somehow incredibly – stripped of all their sand, when the Tywarnhayle pub in Perranporth has been flooded for the past two months, well it certainly gets you thinking.

The funny thing is that I’d spent most of 2013 travelling around the UK and Europe talking to researchers and policy makers about the benefits to health and well-being of living near or visiting the coast. Specifically, as part of the Beyond Greenspace project we’ve been looking at how interacting with aquatic environments (i.e. blue space) and the coast in particular could provide a whole range of physiological and psychological benefits. We’ve brought together incredibly diverse types of data which all point(ed) to the same thing including analysis of Census data for the whole of England, longitudinal data from the British Household Panel Survey, cross-sectional data from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey, qualitative interviews with families about their beach going antics and experimental data in the lab. All the evidence was pointing towards the suggestion that spending time near the coast was somehow “good” for people. Of course, this idea was not new, Thalassotherapy (see Charlier & Chaineux, 2009) has a long and venerable history, but we believed we were starting to provide a bit of evidence to support some of these contentions.

And then 2014 happened and I started to wonder. Every day I went to work, Perranporth seemed a little more battered, the car park and the businesses along the front more bruised. Was this going to be the new norm of coastal living? Had the fun gone out of it? And then we checked out the website clips of the local storms. Thousands of people were flocking to the big wave spots such as Porthleven and Gwithian to watch the storms. The police were appealing on the local radio for people to stay away and stop blocking the roads and access routes. And then I realised, people are drawn to the sea no matter what state it is in. It doesn’t need to be sunny and calm, huge and ferocious is part of the appeal. An old psychology paper from 30 years ago already pointed out that plenty of seascape paintings are of stormy seas and tales of sea storms have fascinated listeners and readers for millennia. Of course if your livelihood and life are directly threatened by these storms (e.g. fisherman, sailors etc.) they are terrifying and deadly. But for many, the day trip storm chasers, the sea still seems to hold enormous fascination, its ever changing mood something to be wondered at, awe struck.

So maybe we need to start exploring this attraction of the sea in a bit more detail. Why are we drawn to its (destructive) power? How could we harness this fascination to improve and support people’s health? How can we work with the sea – rather than futilely try to build concrete barricades against it – to ensure coastal communities do not become increasingly exposed to the vicissitudes of climate change? The Beyond Greenspace project won’t be able to tackle all of these issues of course, but it’s certainly providing us with a useful framework to start exploring some of these issues. And though I’ve enjoyed the storms as much as anyone, they’re getting a bit tiresome now. A few weeks of calm and sunshine would be lovely, especially for all those who need to mop up – and hopefully the coastal communities can start preparing for the 2014 Spring and Summer seasons. And let’s hope they get the Dawlish line fixed sometime soon as it’s still one of the most amazing coastal railway stretches in the world and a perfect introduction to what the South West is all about.

2 comments

  1. Hi Mat,

    My feeling is that the sea delivers psychological benefits in quite subtle ways, through awe and scale. Unlike mountainous upland areas, for example, the sea is always in motion, changeful. It holds many varied but commonly held cultural and historical meanings. It’s literally immersive, and I think it puts people in touch with existential aspects of their selves in a very immediate way. So it’s not all about exercise and beach holidays, or the pacific effect of calm blue water; it’s also about being shocked, feeling threatened but still safe, and testing one’s own sense of significance against wildness that can damage you and yours. There is benefit in all of that, as well as risk.

  2. […] … longitudinal data from the British Household Panel Survey, cross-sectional data from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey, qualitative interviews with families about their beach going antics and …  […]

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