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Sand dunes offer clues to coastal erosion and how to prevent it

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The management of these natural barriers through the ages could hold lessons for coping with climate change and rising sea levels today.


The 200 million Europeans who live in coastal zones are already feeling the impact of global warming through extreme variations in sea level and flooding.

Many parts of Europe could suffer 10 times more coastal flooding by 2100, depending on the trajectory of greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change, according to the European Environment Agency.

History lessons

‘For major cities close to the shore, this is going to be a big issue,’ said Dr Joana Freitas, an environmental historian at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

The predicted rise in sea levels has focused attention on the measures that can be taken to protect Europe’s coastline. As the first natural line of defence against flooding and coastal erosion, sand dunes have an important role to play in sheltering these areas.

But today’s sand dunes don’t provide as much protection as they once did.

Looking at how people have interacted with nature can provide valuable insights into recent changes in the environment and humankind’s role in causing them, according to Freitas.

She is the lead researcher of the EU-funded DUNES project, which is putting together a complete history of human-environment interactions in coastal areas worldwide.

The project, which began in November 2018 and runs through April 2024, covers France, Portugal, the UK, Brazil, Mozambique, North America and New Zealand.

‘Humans have a long history of connecting with dunes,’ said Freitas.

That history is marked by ups and downs. In the 17th to 18th centuries, dunes in Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Portugal were considered dangerous because the sand blown inland by the wind silted rivers and harmed farms.

Tree traps 

To prevent this, coastal inhabitants planted marram grass – Ammophila arenaria – to trap the sands.

Later, from the end of the 18th century, several countries in Europe supported the planting of trees on dunes to prevent the destruction of arable land and increase dunes’ economic value by turning them into forested areas.

Trees can grow well on stabilised dunes and become part of their ecosystem. And, in general, vegetation such as grasses, shrubs and bushes can help stabilise dunes and prevent their erosion as well as provide a home for plants and wildlife.

But large-scale tree plantings carried out in the 19th century and early 20th century caused more damage than the inhabitants likely realised. For one, as these new forests often were monocultures of non-native species, they disrupted the existing ecosystems.

Second, extensive tree planting – along with the spread of urban areas, building of harbours and dams, dredging of navigation channels and construction of seawalls and low barriers known as groynes – caused profound changes in coastal areas.

For example, they deeply affected the balance between sediment added to and removed from a coastal system’s littoral zone, which is the part of a sea close to the shore. This activity reduced the amount of sand on some beaches, limiting their ability to act as a buffer and protect structures and buildings on the coast.

Wave power

‘Dunes are keepers of sand, they are reservoirs,’ said Freitas. ‘When there are bigger and stronger waves during storms, the sand is taken from the beach, which creates an underwater barrier, so the next waves will be blocked.’

Eventually, over weeks or months, more gentle waves gradually return the eroded sand from offshore to the beach. This fluctuating of the shoreline backwards and forwards over timeis a normal coastal process that is hardly noticeable in normal times but can be dramatic during storms.

Freitas is concerned that if the natural balance isn’t maintained, beaches will eventually be destroyed and the coastal protection dunes provide will be lost.

Olivier Burvingt, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France, is well aware of the potential impact of storms and sea level rises on coastal sand dunes.

As part of the EU-funded ERoDES project, Burvingt and colleagues are seeking to understand how dunes respond to and recover from extreme weather events along the Atlantic coast of Europe. The three-year project runs through August 2024.

By using light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, laser technology, the ERoDES team can collect precise data from the air along several kilometres of dunes.

‘Regional coastal monitoring programmes across Europe provide us with data that were collected using aircraft that fly over dunes,’ said Burvingt. ‘That way we can measure and study the topographical changes of the dune sediments with a vertical precision of up to 10 centimetres.’

Like Freitas and her team, ERoDES is also looking back in time and drawing on physical and digital archives and models to understand more about dunes’ behaviour now and in the future.

Regional puzzles

The vast amount of data collected by the project can provide insights into the difference in resilience of some of the most exposed coastal dunes along the Atlantic coast.

For example, the team is studying the response and recovery rates of eight coastal dune areas ranging from north-western England to southwestern France in the 2011-2020 period.

All the areas under study have been exposed to and eroded by massive storms in the Atlantic, particularly extreme weather experienced in the winter of 2013-2014.

A puzzling element for the researchers is that, although exposed to the same storms, the dunes have responded differently and have all recovered at varying speeds. While some areas have returned to the same state they were in before the storms, others are still recovering or have lost even more sand.

‘We’re trying to understand why their response is different,’ said Burvingt.

All eight sites have different environmental characteristics, including tides, climate, dune size, coastline shape and vegetation density.

One of the main findings from the project so far is that the dunes with the steepest slopes were the ones to lose the most sand.

Another is that the rate of recovery is mainly dependent on the amount of sediment available along the coastline. Being able accurately to assess these sediment budgets is key to anticipating the evolution of coastal dunes.

At the project’s end, these results will be shared with coastal authorities across Europe. Based on the characteristics of each region, officials can tailor a strategy to protect the dunes, restore the coasts and guard against future storms and flooding.

New approach

Both ERoDES and DUNES advance a broad EU initiative to help cities and local authorities better understand the climate threat they face and how to react in time.

But in doing so, the two projects take a new approach to adapting to global warming by avoiding a traditional focus on new technologies and methods that can prevent, or at least reduce, the impact of future flooding, drought, wildfires and other consequences of rising temperatures.

Instead, ERoDES and DUNES move towards relying on steps that work with an ecosystem rather than introducing traditional human-made fixes such as seawalls, dams and dikes. Future dune restoration and protection are set to depend on planting native vegetation and re-introducing indigenous plant species – actions that are kinder on the environment and relatively inexpensive. 

‘This simple and effective nature-based solution has been done by coastal populations for centuries in some European countries,’ said Freitas.

As for the research itself, she stressed the benefits of its interdisciplinary nature.

‘One of the most important contributions of DUNES is to show that transdisciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences is possible, rich and valuable and should be a path to follow more often in the future,’ Freitas said.


According to the latest data from the World Meteorological Organization, Europe is warming twice as fast as the world average.

Adapting to climate change means taking action now to prepare for both the current effects of climate change and the future ones.

The EU Mission on Adaptation to Climate Change focuses on supporting EU regions, cities and local authorities in their efforts to build resilience to the inevitable effects of a changing climate.

With concrete targets for 2030, the EU Mission to Restore our Ocean and Waters will protect and restore aquatic ecosystems to support biodiversity and ensure native wildlife and plants have a home for years to come.

Nature-based solutions are inspired by and supported by nature. They use nature’s own resources – clean air, water and soil – in a smart way, to tackle environmental challenges while supporting biodiversity and providing environmental, social and economic benefits.

Other EU-funded projects that are implementing nature-based solutions to coastal erosion, including dune restoration, include REST-COAST and Interreg MANABAS.

The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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Global warming did the Unthinkable

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French ski resort closes permanently because there’s not enough snow, CNN informs. Winter is coming. And for yet another ski resort in France, that means facing up to the reality that there isn’t enough snow to carry on.

La Sambuy, a town which runs a family skiing destination near Mont Blanc in the French Alps, has decided to dismantle its ski lifts because global warming has shrunk its ski season to just a few weeks, meaning it’s no longer profitable to keep them open.

“Before, we used to have snow practically from the first of December up until the 30th of March,” La Sambuy’s mayor, Jacques Dalex, told CNN.

Last winter, however, there was only “four weeks of snow, and even then, not much snow,” he added. That meant “very quickly, stones and rocks appeared on the piste.”

Able to open for fewer than five weeks during January and February, Dalex said the resort was looking at an annual operating loss of roughly 500,000 euros ($530,000). Keeping the lifts going alone costs 80,000 euros per year.

La Sambuy isn’t a huge resort, with just three lifts and a handful of pistes reaching up to a top height of 1,850 meters (about 6,070 feet).

But with a range of slopes running from expert “black” to beginner “green” and relatively cheap ski passes, it was popular with families seeking more of a low-key Alps experience than offered by bigger, higher-altitude destinations.

UK snow report website On The Snow calls it “an idyllic place to visit, with exceptional panoramic views and everything you need in a friendly resort.”

La Sambuy is not the only French ski resort facing a meltdown. Last year, Saint-Firmin, another small Alpine ski destination, opted to remove its ski lift after seeing its winter season dwindle from months to weeks, a situation also blamed on climate change.

Mountain Wilderness, a French environmental group, says it has dismantled 22 ski lifts in France since 2001, and estimates that there are still 106 abandoned ski lifts across 59 sites in the country.

According to a report published in August by the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, 53% of 2,234 ski resorts surveyed in Europe are likely to experience “a very high snow supply risk” at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) of global warming above pre-industrial levels, without use of artificial snow.

A report published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal found a “substantial possibility” of global temperature rises crossing this 2-degree Celsius threshold by mid-century.

La Sambuy’s Dalex said that “all winter sports resorts in France are impacted by global warming,” particularly those at a medium mountain altitude between 1,000 and 1,500 meters.

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G20 summit must formulate plan for Global South climate change threat

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The G20 summit in India must have a “concrete plan” for “scaled-up” green financing for the Global South as a critical strategy to combat climate change, affirms the founder of one of the world’s largest independent financial advisory, asset management and fintech organizations.

The comments from deVere Group’s Nigel Green comes as leaders of the Group of 20 top industrialised and developing countries will gather this weekend in New Delhi for a summit that will celebrate the end of India’s 12-month G20 presidency.

He says: Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it is a present reality. Rising global temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice caps, and sea-level rise are already affecting communities, ecosystems, and economies worldwide. 

“The Global South, comprising developing nations with limited resources, bears a disproportionate burden in this climate crisis, despite contributing minimally to greenhouse gas emissions.

“As such, the leader of the G20 – the richest countries in the world – must use the summit starting in India this week to formulate a concrete plan for scaled-up green financing to help the Global South tackle the biggest issue of our time. 

“A failure to do this could, ultimately, have catastrophic consequences for our planet and its communities.”

Green financing encompasses a range of mechanisms designed to support sustainable, environmentally friendly projects that mitigate climate change and enhance resilience. 

These include investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate adaptation, sustainable agriculture, and conservation efforts. 

“One of the major challenges faced by the Global South is access to financial resources needed for climate action. Developing nations often lack the financial capacity to invest in green projects without incurring significant debt,” says the deVere CEO.

“The G20 summit must play a pivotal role in bridging this financial gap by prioritising green financing and creating mechanisms to make it more accessible.”

G20 countries, being the largest economies in the world, must also “commit to increasing in a considerable way their financial contributions to international climate finance mechanisms. These funds are essential for providing support to developing nations in their efforts to mitigate emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” he notes.

Nigel Green goes on to add that the G20 summit should also serve as a platform for fostering collaboration between developed and developing nations. 

This collaboration can take various forms, including knowledge sharing, technology transfer, and capacity building. 
In addition, to scale up climate action, it is crucial to engage the private sector. G20 countries can promote public-private partnerships and initiatives that attract private sector investment in green projects. 

“This can be achieved through incentives, guarantees, or risk-sharing mechanisms that make investments in sustainability more appealing to businesses.”

Innovation in financial instruments, such as green bonds and climate insurance, can unlock alternative funding sources for climate projects in developing nations. 

The deVere CEO says: “The G20 summit must urgently encourage the development and adoption of such instruments to diversify funding options.”

The G20 summit in India presents a crucial opportunity to prioritize green financing for the Global South as a key strategy to combat climate change. 

This summit can be a turning point in the global fight against climate change, demonstrating that unity, innovation, and commitment can drive transformative change toward a sustainable future for all.

“The urgency of climate action cannot be overstated, and the global community must act decisively. 

“By committing to green financing, promoting collaboration, and bridging the financial gap, the G20 can lead the way in ensuring that all nations, particularly those in the Global South, have the resources and support they need to address the climate crisis effectively,” concludes Nigel Green.

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To tackle wildfires, researchers in Europe team up with frontline forces

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The EU is seeking to limit growing threats from blazes through the use of satellites, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles.


Picture the following scene on the French island of Corsica: a local fire service uses a special surveillance camera to detect smoke in the area, quickly declare the outbreak of a blaze and mobilise a targeted response.

No, the action in the Biguglia municipality on Corsica’s northeastern coast wasn’t one of the many wildfire emergencies in Europe in 2023. Rather, it was a demonstration in October 2022 under an EU-funded research project to help regions in Europe counter threats from wildfires.

Teaming up

The Biguglia exercise used a smoke bomb to simulate the start of a fire and an extensive data network to trigger the rapid-reaction steps. It involved a service that has 1 300 firefighters who protect a population in this part of Corsica – the Mediterranean’s fourth-biggest island – that grows to around 400 000 in summer.

‘This first demonstration on Corsica was very positive,’ said Michael Pelissier, a firefighter who participated in the test.

As part of the EU project, called SAFERS, a similar firefighting exercise took place in the Piedmont region of Italy in February 2023 and two more trials are planned in Greece and Spain toward the end of this year.

After the next two demonstrations, we would like to push the management system forward in Europe and also beyond,’ said Claudio Rossi, who coordinates the project and is a senior researcher at an Italian research and innovation centre called the Links Foundation in the city of Turin.

With the help of EU funding, Europe’s research community is joining forces with firefighters to prevent fires from spreading or from happening at all. SAFERS is one of several EU projects to combine resources and know-how for tackling wildfires on the continent.

Satellite support

The focus of SAFERS is primarily on the use of satellites and artificial intelligence, or AI, to provide information that could help save lives and contain environmental damage.

‘The orchestrated utilisation of AI-powered solutions can increase resilience to forest fires,’ Rossi said.

Running for three and a half years through March 2024, the project features weather and hazard maps, fire-detection techniques, input from the general public and other tools to help local authorities prepare.

The ultimate goal is to build on the demonstrations in France, Greece, Italy and Spain and develop a comprehensive wildfire-control system for use around Europe.

By combining satellite images and other data, the system is intended to give first responders, decision-makers and ordinary people a clearer view of what’s happening and to facilitate the best responses.

Earth-observation data from the EU’s Copernicus programme is the primary source of information. This would be combined with data collected from smoke detectors, mobile applications, social media and forecast models.

Present threat

A stark reminder that wildfires pose a growing threat in Europe came from news images in July 2023 of tourists fleeing flames on the Greek island of Rhodes and blazes spreading near the Sicilian city of Palermo.

A month later, attention turned to Spain and Portugal where blazes destroyed more than 16 300 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of villages and tourist accommodations.

The Biguglia municipality on Corsica was chosen as a SAFERS demonstration site in part because of a major fire there in 2017.

‘These last years we have noticed that, notably because of global warming, the summer season has a tendency to expand,’ said Pelissier, the firefighter. ‘So we are increasingly threatened by forest fires.’

The EU, which recently doubled its firefighting fleet of aircraft, has deployed more than 10 planes, 500 firefighters and 100 vehicles to help control and quell wildfires in Greece alone during the summer of 2023.

Over the past two months, the EU has also mobilised such support for Cyprus and – outside Europe – Tunisia. The moves were closely coordinated with national authorities.

Hotspot training

Another EU-funded project – TREEADS – plans to feature drones, high-altitude balloons and satellites in a Europe-wide protection system.

‘We can’t only invest in fire trucks, helicopters or planes – we need to train our communities before the fires happen,’ said Kemal Sarp Arsava, who coordinates the project.

Arsava is a senior research scientist at Norway-based RISE Fire Research, which specialises in fire safety.

TREEADS aims to establish a comprehensive fire-management platform covering all three stages of wildfires – before, during and after a blaze breaks out.

Arsava is a native of Turkey who has also worked and studied in the US.

While in the US in late 2019, he was reminded of the international dimension of the wildfires threat by noticing the effect of Australia’s major outbreak of bushfires at the time.

Based then in the state of New Hampshire, Arsava said the blazes caused a slight haze in North America while primarily hurting air quality in South America. 

‘The smoke from all of the wildfires in Australia basically crossed the Pacific Ocean and even changed the colour of the sky in America,’ he said.

Drones and balloons

TREEADS began in December 2021 and is due to run until end-May 2025.

The initiative brings together research institutes and companies from 14 European countries and Taiwan.

Besides Norway and Taiwan, the participants are from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Spain and Sweden.

The team of researchers is developing new technologies that’ll be tested in eight countries represented in the project.

One plan is to use drones and high-altitude balloons to detect blazes early, collect data for fire crews and even aid their actions by dropping fire-suppressant materials.

A four-layer approach is foreseen: low-altitude drones to locate fire hotspots; mid-altitude drones to drop fire suppressants; high-altitude balloons to provide a broader view; and satellites for the whole picture.

The trials are due to start early next year.

The project is also testing a virtual-reality headset to train firefighters who aren’t typically assigned to dealing with wildfires. That means teaching city firefighters to deal with blazes in different terrains should the need arise.

In total, more than 26 technologies including for fire protection and suppression will be enhanced, developed and verified in TREEADS.

‘These new technologies will make it easier to fight wildfires in the future,’ said Arsava.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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