Climate change is causing a sea change that represents a direct threat to the environment of the Outer Hebrides

Abigail Taylor

Climate change now dominates discussion at almost every level, with greater awareness of the challenges facing the world, in this country, since it hosted COP26.

Long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns could be natural, but since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, which produces heat-trapping gas, pushing up temperatures all over the Earth.

Climate change will be a focus of coverage in Am Pàipear during 2022. Speaking with local experts, articles will examine the impacts of climate change in different contexts, including crofting, business, fishing and the unique environment of the Outer Hebrides.

Looking at the challenges climate change will create for the environment, this month Am Pàipear discusses the changes already evident and possible mitigations with NatureScot operations manager Johanne Ferguson.

“Sea level rise is often associated with climate change and we are already seeing the impact of erosion here,” explained Johanne.

“We have got a relative sea level rise of about 6mm a year. It is partly because the islands are tilting into the sea at a rate of about 2mm a year, which is why we call it relative sea level rise, and as the sea rises it eats into the sand dunes, causing a lot of erosion, so the key is to make the dunes as healthy as possible.”

Sand dunes are the critical element of defence against rising seas levels and the climate emergency continued Johanne.

“Sand dunes protect us as so we are very much relying on a stable sand dune edge. If that is breached, we are vulnerable to flooding and erosion. So it is in our own interest to make sure we are as robust as possible.

“In terms of making the dunes more resilient to climate change, some crofters have been fencing off areas to protect them from grazing, which allows the marram to grow through and strengthens the dunes. It is important no peat or soil is dumped on the dunes, as these actually react with the dunes and release more carbon and stop the marram from growing.”

Johanne explained that in addition to being a real threat towards the human population on the islands, climate change, represented in rising sea temperatures, is hitting seabird species hard.

“Puffins, kittiwakes and terns all feed on sand eels which have become less and less available because of the temperature change and so these birds have had to change food sources to pipefish. Chicks cannot eat these, resulting in them starving and some poor breeding seasons.

“But almost all bird species are being affected through climate change, as with the climate warming up, we are getting unpredictable weather patterns and extreme events. Unfortunately, often when birds have nested and laid their eggs, storms and floods are washing them away and destroying them. It all adds up to reducing the breeding success over time. If we lose our breeding birds, which most of our tourism relies on, there is a great economic impact.”

Professor Stewart Angus, coastal ecologist with NatureScot, is working on a resilience strategy to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change and make a plan for the habitats and people here to be more resilient in the future.

“It is not just crofting and loss of land due to erosion, it is our infrastructure, transportation, roads and buildings, everything is affected,” continued Johanne.

“Work is underway in some areas to utilise excess silage bales to plug holes in the dunes and that can work really well as long as the wrapping is removed first and they are not just dumped, which can be harmful to wildlife. Baleshare residents have been moving shingle around after bad storms, from their land and tracks back to the beach where it belongs, and also moving it to allow for car parking for tourists to ensure that areas are not eroded away. But there are loads of different things, big and small, that we as a community can do to become more resilient to climate change in the future.

“We cannot stop climate change, all we can do is try to lessen the impact of climate change. Even if we completely stop emitting carbon, we would still see the levels rising for years to come. So the predictions are at the moment, if we significantly reduced the amount of carbon we omit, sea levels would rise 30cm before the end of the century. If we carry on how we are going, it’s looking like a rise of a meter come the end of the century.”