Climate change and the Path

Climate change is no longer a distant threat, but a future that we all must now adapt to. The South West Coast Path is somewhere we are already seeing the effects of the climate emergency on our doorstep.

Photo: Storm at Porthleven, Cornwall by Lloyd Cosway

The fragile place where lands meet sea

The South West Coast Path exists on the fringe, the edge, the brink. It’s what makes it so special, so exhilarating and so freeing. This also puts it on the frontline when it comes to extreme weather caused by climate change. Increasing storm damage, combined with rising sea levels are leading to faster rates of coastal erosion which in turn drives up costs of caring for the Trail, threatening the access we often take for granted. We had several serious storms during 2020, and the wettest February on record, with major cliff collapses on the Cornwall, Devon and Dorset coasts.




Our changing coast

Photo: Storm at Sennen, Cornwall by Andrew den Bakker

The 2020 Marine Climate Change Impact Report is just one of many recent studies to paint a worrying picture of the current status and future of our coastline and seascape. The report finds that:

  • Warming seas, reduced oxygen, ocean acidification and sea-level rise are already affecting the UK.
  • Mean sea level around the UK has risen by 12–16 cm in approximately the last 100 years.
  • Mean significant wave heights in the Northeast Atlantic have increased since the 1950s.
  • Climate change impacts are expected to result in the loss of many coastal heritage features.

How is the Trail impacted?

Photo: Cliff fall at West Bay, Dorset by James Loveridge

The short to medium term impacts of climate change on the Coast Path predominantly come from increasing storm damage, combined with rising sea levels, leading to faster rates of coastal erosion. The most dramatic manifestation of erosion along the Path are cliff falls, often resulting in diversions that compromise the integrity and accessibility of the surrounding route. It doesn’t take a catastrophic event for the Path to be impacted though. If weather patterns are disrupted even enough to increase rain fall levels, there can be problems. Anyone who’s walked the Coast Path this winter will have been acutely aware of far muddier than average conditions making some pinch points along the Trail more difficult or dangerous to negotiate.

What is the Association doing to combat these impacts?

Photo: New steps near Lyme Regis, Dorset funded by the Association stand up to the rain

Our amazing team of around 75 volunteer Path Reps undertake a thorough condition survey of the South West Coast Path every year using tablets carrying special software. They are also our eyes and ears on the ground, regularly feeding vital data from their assigned 10 mile stretch back to us at SWCP HQ. Thanks to their efforts we are able to respond to Trail emergencies, get an early heads up about threats and channel funding to where it is needed most.

We are also working with our partners to develop a future-proofing plan for the Trail. This includes looking at how we deal with ‘roll back’ (when the Path the is retreated away from eroding coastline), as well as identifying potential future diversions. We also plan to review Path infrastructure, surfacing and drainage to see what improvements could be made to reduce the impact of more varied weather. By identifying issues in advance, we can cost out and plan developments to the Trail to ensure it remains accessible for future generations.

Discover current wildlife and environmental Path projects: