The effects of the climate crisis on UK slopes

11 September 2023

Our geotechnical partner Liz reflects on the effects of climate change on slopes.

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, I was lucky enough to be walking on the Jurassic Coast. We started our walk at Seatown and saw for ourselves the massive cliff collapse that occurred in July ( I was reminded again that we live in a dynamic landscape.

Natural and man made slopes have always been a ground engineering hazard that require regular assessment and sometimes intervention. The climate crisis however is having significant and visible effects on slopes in the United Kingdom. Changing precipitation patterns and rising temperatures are causing several noticeable changes:

  • Increased erosion:
    • more intense rainfall events can lead to more frequent and severe landslides.
    • rising sea levels and increased storm surges can erode coastlines.
  • Infrastructure vulnerability:
    • roads, buildings, and other infrastructure on slopes are at higher risk of damage due to increased erosion and landslides caused by extreme weather events.
  • Increased flooding:
    • changing rainfall patterns of prolonged droughts and intense rainfall increase the risks of flash flooding and mudslides in areas with steep terrain.
  • Vegetation:
    • native plants are struggling to adapt to the changing climate. For many slopes the reinforcement action of roots and suction in the ground created by water uptake are critical factors in slope stability.

A quick look at publications such as Ground Engineering magazine shows how the assessment and management of slopes is a major part of geotechnics. In just the last couple of months there have been articles covering landslides or slope management in Glencoe, Hastings, the West Midlands, Somerset,  the Severn estuary and more.

We have noticed this phenomenon at CampbellReith too. We are currently investigating and assessing slopes in Southend on Sea in Essex, St Leonards in Sussex and Wareham in Dorset to establish their stability. We have designed slope stabilisation measures for sites in Bath, Bristol and Dorking in the last few months. We see this work set to increase as land and asset owners seek to manage their risks and deal with landslip events.

Ultimately however, addressing these challenges requires not just geotechnical intervention but proactive steps to slow climate change. And we must ensure that our interventions are effective, sustainable and preserve the natural environment as well as reducing risk.