How island communities are adapting to rising sea levels


The latest climate research news: Once a month, climate researchers share their latest findings in the Hamburger Abendblatt. The geographer Jan Petzold is currently investigating how coastal residents are adapting to rising sea levels.

Because of the Gulf Stream the Isles of Scilly have a mild climate with many sunny days.
Jan Petzold surveyed the inhabitants of the Isles of Scilly on how they are adapting to cope with climate change.
The inhabitants of the Isles of Scilly have always protected themselves against floods and a rising sea level.

As a result of climate change, in many regions the sea level is rising. Humans can adapt to these changing conditions by building seawalls, by relocating, or by increasing the height of protective dykes. Yet the quality that allows us to adapt and overcome is not just a question of technology or funding; when faced with extreme weather events and catastrophes, the ability to help oneself, cohesion among neighbors, and the readiness to take action together are also essential. In the academic world, we refer to this resource as social capital. But which social capital factors increase our adaptability to the impacts of climate change? That’s the question I’m currently exploring as a geographer at Universität Hamburg.

To do so, I’ve conducted research on the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago to the southwest of England. The people who live there have always had to weather storms and flooding. There are five larger islands with a total population of ca. 2,000, as well as a number of smaller, uninhabited islands. 3,000 years ago, the sea level was lower and many of the islands were interconnected. For the past 1,000 years, the sea level has remained comparatively stable. Yet climate change is now making its presence felt, and the sea level on the coasts of southwest England is rising – by 20 centimeters over the past 100 years, and an average rise of 50 additional centimeters by 2100 is projected.

For my analysis I distributed questionnaires to ca. 900 households and conducted extensive interviews with administrative staff, local organizations and individuals. The results show: Some social capital factors can be found in abundance on all of the islands, especially mutual trust and the readiness to help others in the event of storms or floods. However, there are major differences in terms of adaptability, especially when it comes to the readiness to act in concert and autonomously.

A further key finding: On the three islands that are farthest from the main island, taking matters into their own hands is part and parcel of the inhabitants’ lives; between 64 and 83 percent attend to things like coastal protection or maintaining public facilities themselves. Life there is primarily shaped by independence and a sense of community, while the influence of the local authorities is fairly limited.

Accordingly, being “rich” in social capital doesn’t necessarily mean the islands’ inhabitants are prepared for rising sea levels; instead, it comes down to the crucial social capital factors. For example, my analysis revealed that islands are best prepared when the people who live on them are willing to share their experience, resources and skills, and when local, self-governing organizational structures are established. To make that happen, they need individuals and local organizations that are capable of mobilizing the island community and its available social capital – towards the goal of concerted, autonomous action. Ultimately, it is up to these people to equip their communities to adapt to rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change.

More information

Contact Jan Petzold

CEN research topic "Ocean Circulation and Sea Level Change"