Knowing how quickly coastlines have eroded is essential for quantifying the future risks to both infrastructure and coastal ecosystems. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Hurst et al. report retreat rates for cliffs on the south coast of Britain (pictured) over thousands of years, and show that this erosion has speeded up in recent centuries (M. D. Hurst et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA; 2016).

The authors combine high-precision isotopic dating with a detailed numerical model of coastal erosion. They find that retreat rates were relatively slow (2–6 centimetres per year) until a few hundred years ago before subsequently accelerating (reaching 22–32 cm yr−1), and suggest that this is driven by a combination of environmental and anthropogenic factors. The results show that a careful analysis of long-term coastal records can uncover more-recent changes, which will help in developing predictive models.

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