Experts predict rising sea levels will flood much of Belfast by 2050

Rising sea levels could mean huge tracts of Belfast city centre will be underwater in the coming decades, according to a new mapping tool.

By Niall Deeney
Friday, 20th August 2021, 7:01 am

The ‘coastal screening tool’, produced by the authoritative US-based non-profit organisation Climate Central, shows a huge chunk of the city centre – including several landmark locations such as St George’s Market, the City Airport, and the Titanic Quarter – will be at risk of severe flooding by 2050 unless action is taken.

This comes after recent extreme weather in Northern Ireland, with a record-breaking heatwave last month followed almost immediately by torrential rain and flooding.

The Green Party said the data outlined by Climate Central – based on peer-reviewed scientific research on sea level projections, combined with detailed elevation mapping – shouldn’t come as a “surprise” in light of repeated warnings from experts.

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The party’s North Down MLA Rachel Woods said existing coastal defences are “nowhere near enough” to tackle the problem.

The Department for Infrastructure, meanwhile, said a £17 million Belfast Tidal Defence scheme will “mitigate” against the projected rise in sea levels.

Other areas of Northern Ireland at serious risk from the rise in sea levels include much of Newtownards, along with vast swathes of the Ards Peninsula.

Huge swathes of rich, low-lying farmland along the coast of Lough Foyle in Co Londonderry are also at risk.

Across the world, coastal and low-lying areas already vulnerable to flooding could be completely submerged in water in 30 years time unless something can be done to halt the rise in sea levels, according to the organisation behind the online map.

Climate Central, a non-profit organisation focused on climate science, has produced the searchable map based on highly cited research led by respected climate scientist Robert Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences in the USA.

The research, published initially in 2014 and revised in 2017, looked at the impact of melting ice sheets at the earth’s poles on global sea levels.

Climate Central’s mapping tool, meanwhile, applies these projections to a digital elevation model to highlight the areas most at risk.

The new map shows that much of east Belfast – from the Lagan as far as Connswater – could be underwater without action.

The Department for Infrastructure, meanwhile, has said new flood alleviation schemes will take account of the impact of climate change.

The Stormont department pointed to a “£17 million Belfast Tidal scheme” that it says will provide a “high level of protection up to the mid-2080s”.

Green Party MLA Rachel Woods, however, said coastal defences are “nowhere near enough” to protect the areas most at risk.

The News Letter asked the Department for Infrastructure what preparatory work it is undertaking to mitigate against the impact of climate change, what impact the department believes the rise in sea levels will have on existing infrastructure, and whether consideration is being given to the use of coastal defences.

A spokesperson for the Stormont department said: “The department, when designing new flood alleviation schemes, also takes into account the impact of climate change.

“For example the £17 million Belfast Tidal scheme is being designed to provide a high level of protection up to the mid-2080s with adaptability to the 2120s.

“The project involves the detailed design and construction of over five miles (approximately 8.5km) of flood defences and aims to provide a long-term approach to tidal flood risk management in the city. This ensures that the scheme is future-proofed while allowing for the provision of additional protection based on the refinement of sea level rise predictions in the future.”

The spokesperson continued: “The aim of the scheme is to protect against existing tidal flood risk and to mitigate against future sea level rise caused by climate change for Belfast Harbour and the tidal influence of the River Lagan which extends to Stranmillis Weir. This will reduce tidal flood risk to over 1,500 properties in the city which will hopefully bring some comfort and reassurance to the residents and proprietors within the city centre, particularly those concerned about the effects of sea level rise caused climate change.”

The proposed defences are 8.5 kilometres long.

Green Party MLA Rachel Woods said: “Looking at Climate Central’s mapping tool, the data comes as no surprise - we have been warned before. Recently, in 2018, Defra launched the UK Climate Change Projections which illustrated that by 2100 sea levels in Belfast alone could rise by up to 94cms. The IPCC report, published last week, was a stark reminder that the window to act on climate change is closing and some changes, such as sea level rise, are irreversible. Rising tides and water levels pose great risks and challenges to our local communities, including those who live near the coast, on the coastline, or in flood plains.”
She continued: “In my own constituency of North Down, the mapping system shows that the entire of the Kinnegar in Holywood could be under the water level by 2050, all of the coastal path to Bangor, to Kingsland, Ballyholme, Groomsport up to the Main Street, Donaghadee past William Street, and Shore Road and Whitechurch Road in Millisle. People and communities are therefore vulnerable to flooding and damage as extreme weather events increase. Current and future emissions will shape the extent of those harms faced by coastal communities and beyond.”

Ms Woods added: “We must future proof for the changing climate through flood resistance and resilience too, as well as reducing emissions. One example of this is through our planning system which must adapt immediately. Another is the current provision of coastal defences. The Department for Infrastructure is responsible for the inspection and maintenance of approximately 26 kilometres of sea defences in Northern Ireland (350m in North Down), which is nowhere near enough.

“We need to get to net zero and we need a Climate Act for Northern Ireland. Failure to act will have, and already has had, devastating consequences globally and locally.”