Will our links be washed away?
A new report warns many of our links could soon be consumed by the sea. Stuart Hood investigates.
Last month, The Climate Coalition published a report titled, ‘Game Changer: How climate change is impacting sports in the UK.’ It aimed to highlight how extreme weather was affecting cricket, winter sports, football and golf, and advise on how sports could tackle climate change. But, when it came to golf, most news outlets concentrated on the former revelation.
“Historic courses could be under water by the end of the century,” cried one report, while the usually more cautious BBC noted that “Open venues (are) at risk of disappearing.”
Add these headlines to the report’s prediction that melting ice caps will see sea levels rise by as much as 100cm by 2100 and its insistence that “a small sea-level rise would imperil all of the world’s links courses”, and it suggests that many of our sport’s most beloved venues are soon going to be more suited to scuba diving than golf. Happily, this is not actually the case.
“Sea level rises will affect a lot fewer links courses than the reports claim,” says Carolyn Hedley, Environment Manager at Scottish Golf. “Yes, if some clubs do nothing for 50 years, they might lose a portion of their golf course, but the clubs at risk will put in defences and adapt.”
However, sea level rises are just one element of climate change covered by the report. “As temperatures increase, warmer air holds more moisture, meaning we are very likely to see continued increases in heavy rain and more powerful storms,” says Kate Sambrook of the Priestley International Centre for Climate.
For our inland courses, this heavy rain is likely to lead to more closures due to flooding. For links courses, these powerful storms are set to worsen the coastal erosion already being experienced by some of the country’s most historic golfing venues. “Climate change is often seen as tomorrow’s problem, but it is already eating away at our course,” says Chris Curnin, Director of Montrose Golf Links.
Indeed it is. In 2016, a research team discovered that the North Sea had crept 70m towards the golf course in the last 30 years. And in 2017, the club sacrificed the 3rd tee in order to protect the 1st green and 2nd tee.
“We’d reached a critical point,” says Curnin. “The rock armour protecting our 2nd tee and 1st green was no longer sufficient and we were in real danger of losing them. So, with the help of Angus Council, we decided to move the rocks protecting our 3rd tee to bolster the rocks at the 2nd tee and 1st green.”
‘Reports claimed that some of our historic courses could be under water by the end of this century. A small sea-level rise would imperil every links course’
The move bought them time. “We hope we’ll be included in the next round of funding for coastal protection,” says Curnin.
The situation at Royal North Devon is even worse. Since 2002, England’s oldest links has seen the sea reclaim a 600m stretch of dunes. “The erosion has really escalated since the storms in 2013, and this January was the most worrying period yet,” reveals general manager Mark Evans. “During Storm Eleanor, we lost about 15m of the championship course and saw the 8th tee washed away. Now, we only have around 12m behind the 7th green, so it really is at risk of being lost.” The club is lobbying the authorities to input sea defences, but so far to no avail, due in part to the colossal costs involved. “The local council have been supportive, but they won’t let us do anything. It is frustrating, but we will keep trying hard and looking at new ideas.”
So what can a course do to adapt to the threat? Direct options include constructing artificial dunes and reefs, erecting fences and building hard rock defences. The indirect option involves reducing the course’s environmental and ecological impact by embracing solar power, rainwater harvesting and electric/hybrid machinery.
“A lot can be done,” says Kate Sambrook. “So while golf clubs should be concerned, they should also be motivated about the changes they could make.”
Coastal erosion at Montrose – red marks danger.