For southern Britain, there's an additional aggravating factor. It is called glacio-isostacy, and it was set in train when the last ice age ended some 10,000 years ago. Up until that time, much of northern Britain had been covered with sheets of ice for thousands of years. This caused the north to sink and the south to see-saw upwards. When the ice melted, the north - now relieved of its burden - slowly began to rise again, while the south began to fall - a process which still continues, and which is causing the coast of East Anglia to sink at a rate of around one millimetre each year.
Added to the predicted effects of climate change, this means that southern England can expect an increase in sea levels of six millimetres per year, while in the north-west, glacio-isostacy limits the annual rise to around four millimetres.
Past attempts at coastal management have been localised and fragmentary.
But all that changed in 1993 with the publication of a national flood and coastal defence strategy for England and Wales.
Coastal managers and decision-makers are now encouraged to work together in coastal groups and to develop Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) that identify future policy which is technically and environmentally sustainable, as well as economically viable.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the National Assembly for Wales also employed consultants to carry out a two-year study of the processes involved in coastal change.
The result of the study, which was called Futurecoast, is an interactive CD-Rom which provides a knowledge base for policymakers. It contains information on everything from climate change to cliff behaviour, and includes maps and aerial photographs, as well as a digital video of the entire coastline, shot from a helicopter. See Defra website below.
There are four options that must be considered when drawing up a Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) for a given stretch of coastline. They are:
* Intervention to hold the existing defence where it is
* Intervention to move the existing defence seaward
* Intervention to move the existing defence landward (also called managed retreat)
* No intervention except for safety measures (the "do nothing" option).
A complex points system has been introduced, so that the value of threatened property and other factors can be weighed against the cost of engineering works and the potential impact on wildlife. Each SMP is intended to be reviewed every five years.
For a photo gallery of erosion at Happisburgh and details of the campaign to save the clifftop village, visit www.happisburgh.org.uk
Defra has a website devoted to erosion and flood management issues at www.defra.gov.ukenvironfcddefault.htm
To learn more about the Newcastle University research project, visit http:geomatics.ncl.ac.ukeventsPast%20eventsscientistsinpioneering.htm
Read about the geology of the Norfolk coast and a detailed account of the factors leading to its erosion at www.northnorfolk.orgcoastaldoc1.html