The Impact of Climate Change on UK Golf Courses
THE eyes of the world have been on Glasgow as politicians from around the globe have gathered to tackle climate change, the single biggest issue facing mankind today.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.”
The aim is a net-zero carbon future, with nearly every country in the world agreeing to voluntarily lower their carbon emissions, report progress and implementation efforts to show transparency.
Climate change is a serious issue for golf too.
This is a sport that has routinely used pesticides and countless gallons of water to keep greens and fairways in the sort of condition that golfers expect. For years, we have taken all of this for granted but, thankfully, things are changing. Greenkeepers are now using environment-friendly weedkillers and courses around the world are turning to desalination plants to water their fairways.
And that change had to happen.
Coastal erosion has become a real and serious issue all around Britain. One of the most seriously-affected courses is Montrose Golf Links. Going all the way back to 1999, a huge storm took the sixth tee. In 2018, the Scottish Government estimated that between 35 and 40 yards of beach had been lost to the sea since the early 1990s.
Their view was that the Montrose coastline could wear away by up to 80 yards over the next 40 years, which will have a devastating impact on one of the oldest golf courses in the world.
The course has already had to move its second, third and sixth holes. Storms at the end of 2013 took another metre and a half off the beach level, and two metres off the top edge of the dunes.
In the last half of 2019 alone, it was estimated that parts of the links had eroded by three and a half metres.
The existing dune system is acknowledged as critical in protecting areas of Montrose from flooding, as sea levels continue to rise and increased wave heights occur. Studies by Angus Council and other organisations looked at coastal erosion as an issue, and in particular when the dunes will no longer provide protection to the town, with the earliest prediction being 2030.
Montrose is one of seven “super sites” being studied by Dynamic Coast, a cross-governmental group set up to monitor coastal change. It has assessed past erosion rates and projected these forward to 2050
There have been several suggestions in the past few years on how to combat the erosion. Experts say that, apart from climate change, a key issue has been the erosion of Annat Bank, a Montrose Bay feature which has historically dissipated waves before hitting the shore. In 2018, the then links management committee was looking at funding options to install £5million worth of rock armour along seaside holes one, two and three.
Recent discussions with Angus Council, Montrose Port Authority (MPA) and Marine Scotland have looked at changing the depositing of dredged material at Lunan Bay from the port to the coastal zone adjacent to Montrose Beach. But this will not solve the problem.
Montrose is by no means an isolated case. Several courses in East Anglia have also lost holes to the sea.
Over the centuries, whole villages, including Shipden (off Cromer) have vanished under the North Sea. Dunwich in Suffolk has largely disappeared. At the same time, shifting currents and tides have sealed off ports such as Brancaster, once a major hub trading with Northern Europe and the Baltic and home to one of the finest links courses in England.
Sea levels are predicted to rise by up to a metre by the end of the century. Without major sea defences, the sea could reach Cambridge and Peterborough, flood much of East Norfolk and submerge large areas of coastal land in Suffolk and Essex, taking with them golf courses Aldeburgh, Southwold, Frinton, to name but three.
So coastal defences must be the answer? Wrong. Sturdier coastal defences could simply push flooding into the Thames estuary, over the Thames Barrier and into London.
A further effect of climate change is increasingly heavy rainfall which overloads rivers, which then flood. It is commonplace for golf courses in Norfolk and Suffolk to be closed due to flooding. Where inland floodwaters meet tidal surges in low lying areas such as Norfolk, the potential for severe flooding is huge.
Much of the coast of the region, especially in Norfolk and north Suffolk, consists of soft cliffs which are vulnerable to erosion by the sea. Dozens of houses have fallen into the sea, and hundreds more are at risk. In Happisburgh in North Norfolk, buildings go over the cliff every few years. In Spring 2021, half a recently renovated path to the beach vanished overnight, and a canyon some 25 metres long opened up in a field.
In some places, such as Covehithe, just north of Southwold, land is disappearing at a frightening rate of 4.5 metres a year, and estimates are that the village will disappear entirely by the end of the century.
Storm surges don’t help. The worst of those happened in 1953, when an exceptional tide combined with hurricane force winds. The resulting tidal surge killed 307 people, mainly in low lying parts of Essex.
Golf is finally making strides both on social and environmental impact. The Golf Environment Organisation (GEO) helps tournaments and golf course developments meet strict standards of sustainability. GEO’s influence is growing, with partnerships spanning more 60 countries.
New golf course developments in Asia, the Middle East and Africa are now incorporating sustainability into the design and implementation phases of their projects. For instance, Laguna Lang Co in Vietnam has developed a regenerative model with a 17-acre rice field that runs throughout the property and yielded a 28-ton crop in 2020.
In the United States, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) recently completed a three-year plan to establish Environmental Best Management Practices in all 50 states. In professional golf, several PGA Tour tournaments are leading the way to decrease their carbon footprints. Led by the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the LPGA’s Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, these tournaments provide a platform to engage local communities and fans while assessing and reporting the true impact their tournaments have on local ecosystems.
Former Solheim Cup star Suzann Pettersen has emerged as a leading golf sustainability spokesperson, becoming the first professional golfer to openly endorse and partner with the GEO Foundation to establish new levels of awareness and action.
She said: "As a mother of a young child, it is incredible how concerned you become over the future of the planet, its biodiversity, air quality and climate. These things are absolutely vital to the health and wellbeing of future generations, so we all need to do our best to make things better."
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