Climate change: The Welsh village that could be lost to rising sea levels

Borth sits in a precarious position where the sea presents a constant threat.

Welsh legend has it that the sea in Cardigan Bay once swept inland, drowning the mythical community of Cantre’r Gwaelod leaving it forever lost to the sea.

It was Wales' very own Atlantis, and although it may only be a story, people living along the Ceredigion coast are today faced with a similar and very real threat of rising seas.

Head a few miles north of Aberystwyth, and you come to the village of Borth, nestled between the Irish Sea and wetland area.

Borth sits between the Irish Sea and the Cambrian Mountains.

It’s one of a number of communities along the western coast of Wales that is facing increasing risks associated with climate change.

Communities such as Borth, Ynyslas, Aberaeron, Aberystwyth and Cardigan have been identified as the most at risk of being affected by rising sea levels, according to environment watchdog Natural Resources Wales.

Glaciologist Alun Hubbard grew up in the village before working around the world studying glaciers and their retreat.

Alun Hubbard now works at the Arctic University of Norway.

“It’s definitely home,” he told ITV’s Wales This Week. “It’s a pretty unique place. 

“It's so weather beaten by the elements and I had such freedom to roam when I was a little kid so that definitely defined me and I keep coming back of course.”

 “I’ve always loved coming to places where mountains meet the ocean and always been intrigued by the landscape and how the landscape works and the processes going on.”

The love for this landscape inspired Alun to see first hand how climate change across the globe could impact coastal communities like Borth.

Alun has long studied and researched galcial retreat.

“I’ve seen some incredible changes in these places,” he continued.

“I’ve been working in Greenland for 20 to 30 years. We knew climate change was a thing back then but what is amazing is the pace of change and the pace of retreat of these ice sheets in the glaciers.

“I went back to the glacier I worked on in my PHD in the late eighties this last summer and it’s gone. It’s completely gone. 

“I think that knocked it home to me, knowing this process is ongoing, the whole system is imbalanced and now it's getting more and more accelerated. That is pretty gloomy news for the world’s coastlines.”

Borth is now protected by engineering, but for how much longer?

Borth was built on a shingle bank, meaning it has always had to contend with the risks of being low lying on the Irish sea.

Ceredigion County Council has so far spent £18 million on coastal defences in Borth that include a large offshore rock reef and other offshore engineering structures.

It’s now considering a scheme to further protect the coastline between Borth and Ynys Las.

For Alun, the upgrades to coastal defences are a welcome buffer against risks he believes are inevitable.

“Things are going to get worse before they get better with Borth.

“I think the storm we had last year would have been of the magnitude of the 1970s and a large chunk of the village would be gone.

“I think we’ve bought ourselves ten or twenty years.”

“Geographically speaking it’s an ephemeral feature. It came by a storm and will go by a storm.”

Anna has routinely had to deal with the impact of flooding and storms.

Alun’s mother, Anna Hubbard, has lived in Borth for her entire life, but in recent years, the sea has come too close for comfort.

“We’ve had the sea in the house and we’ve had it through the windows,” she said.

“I was injured once by glass when the window came in with a big wave that injured the back of my leg.

“[I’ve] seen other properties washed completely through with furniture on the street and the village has been closed down for several weeks because of storms. It’s been dramatic at times.”

Environment watchdog Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has warned that the issues seen in Borth will also be seen elsewhere in Wales if sea levels rise as predicted.

Such warnings are echoed by Climate Central, a non-profit climate change news organisation, that has produced a number of maps that illustrate how much of Wales could be underwater if sea levels continue to rise.

Estimates predict that sea levels could rise by 30 centimeters by 2050, and up to a meter by 2100.

Jeremy Parr is NRW's head of flood and incident risk management.

Jeremy Parr, head of flood and incident risk management at NRW, told ITV Cymru Wales: “All the science says that climate change is here, its real, its happening now and its going to happen more in the future.

“We’ve got climate change locked in so it’s important we adapt to that climate change.

“Predictions for sea level rise over the next century [are] a meter, so that’s means high tides will be a meter higher.

“Importantly, what you get on top of that is more and more stormy weather. You get intense storms happening and that whips up the sea, the wind forces waves onto land, and that’s how you get really serious flooding. 

“It’s that combination of happening more frequently, sea levels rising and those intense storms all at the same time that is a cocktail for serious events happening more frequently in the future.”

There are currently around 400 kilometers of constructed coastal defences along the Welsh coast, protecting £8 billion worth of assets.

The Welsh Government has pledged  £75 million worth of investment in 2023, as part of a £214 million package to help reduce flood and coastal risks across Wales. 

If such expenditure increases alongside risks in the future, many experts believe difficult conversations will have to take place about what is a suitable investment.

Professor Dominic Reeve has been predicting how our major infrastructure could be affected by climate change.

Swansea University’s Professor Dominic Reeve said: “If you consider hard defences - concrete or rock - they typically cost £10,000 per meter as a rule of thumb.

“If you’ve got a hundred yard defence, that’s going to cost you £1 million. 

“Whether that’s affordable or not depends on the economics of the situation and what you’re protecting. That's really a question for society to answer.”

Despite the growing concerns, Anna Hubbard refuses to contemplate having to move away from the area, a move that would see her become a Welsh ‘climate refugee’.

“It’s a concern but I would never uproot and move because of it,” she added.

Watch Wales This Week: The Shape of Wales? At 8pm on Tuesday, May 23, on ITV Cymru Wales and catch up online afterwards.