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Landfall

Welcome to Montrose Golf Links, the front line in the battle against the game's most frightening enemy: climate change

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Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn’t stop people, against all odds, from trying to delay the inevitable.

Montrose Golf Links, standing on the eastern shores of Angus, Scotland, dates back to 1562 and claims to be the fifth-oldest golf course in the world. Although its four and a half centuries of history are sure to delight anyone who plays there, it’s the landscape itself that indubitably arrests the eyes the first time you walk up to the course’s North Sea–facing edge. The view, particularly when the sun is breaking through the clouds, is astonishing; the length of the coastline and the crashing of the diamantine waves make one feel small, in the best possible way.

The scene does feature some curiosities, though. There is a sign standing atop a high metal post that appears to be in the middle of the beach for no apparent reason. Sizeable fractured logs are piled up on big stony vanguards at the inward edge of the shoreline. Fences marking out-of-bounds areas are tumbling off the small grassy ramparts and onto the sandy beachhead below.

If it wasn’t clear what’s been happening, then the red signs dotting the elevated seaward margins of the golf course spell it out for you. The coast, they declare, is being quickly eroded, eaten up by the action of the sea—and, in time, the town behind it will begin to suffer the same fate.

John Adams, a former Montrose Golf Links club chairman, told me that a few decades ago the second hole was nowhere near the water. “Now,” he said, “it’s almost in the sea.” Parts of the course have already succumbed to wild wintry storms, but, so far, it has more or less stood strong. Still, Adams is a realist: “I think in 10 years, though, we could be in trouble.”

Thanks to the encroaching sea, it’s not just some of the holes that have been shuffled around a bit in recent times; the entire course is facing the prospect of being forcibly moved if the situation continues to worsen. According to Jason Boyd, the head pro and the course’s operations manager, around 6.6 feet of the course is being eroded per year, on average. History is being bequeathed to the sea at a remarkable rate.

It’s clear to those at Montrose Golf Links that the future looks melancholic, no matter which time scale you choose. In the short term, the coastal defenses put in place to prevent the erosion are paradoxically making things worse. In the long term, sea-level rise, driven by humanity’s predilection for fossil fuels, means that Montrose—and all of Scotland’s shores, to varying degrees—will slip beneath the waves.

Like the most interesting of pairings, the relationship between Montrose and the sea is complicated, involving a combination of natural processes and decidedly unnatural ones. Time is running rapidly short to shield Montrose, so now, more than ever, it helps to understand why it is being threatened and how it fits into the bigger picture of Scotland’s transmogrifying coastline.

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Montrose Golf Links is comprised of two courses: the 1562 Course and the Broomfield Course. Even speaking as someone whose golfing abilities are on par with that of a cucumber’s, it is easy to appreciate Montrose’s 36 holes. And, despite its deep history, Montrose isn’t stuck in the past.

The GEO Foundation is an international nonprofit that aims to create a practical and credible sustainability system for golf. Working with various experts, academics and agencies to assess how it uses its natural resources over the course of several years, a course must go through a rigorous process to be certified as environmentally sustainable. The foundation also checks to see how golf courses work with local communities to boost awareness and even find solutions to those issues. 

Montrose Golf Links happens to be a GEO-certified golf course. Its 2018 verification report outlined that its resource consumption, management and community engagement are top drawer. Not only does it strictly limit the use of its groundwater-based irrigation system, but it actively engages in projects, like building bug hotels with schoolchildren, that introduce critters to the golf course while educating the public as to why those activities matter. Reducing water use and preventing potential detriments to an area’s biodiversity are two concerns that golf courses around the world are becoming increasingly aware of, and Montrose is ahead of the curve.

Gordon Shepherd, captain of the Royal Montrose Golf Club, is a longtime advisor to WWF International on climate-related issues who also sits on the board for the GEO Foundation. He has been playing golf at Montrose since he was a teenager. In his lifetime, he says, more than 260 feet have been shaved off the coastal edge of the course. “You could play the whole of the course and not see the sea when I was a kid,” he told me, explaining that the dunes rose high above you and blocked out a view of the water.

How times have changed. On a walking tour of the course, Boyd pointed out numerous locations at which the sea appears to be scouring out sediment and finding weaknesses that it might naturally exploit. “Golf as an industry has been in recession since 2008,” he said. “Coastal erosion, though—that’s the biggest threat.” 

The dunes that still attempt to shield the course from powerful storms have been rapidly chipped away and continue to retreat inland. When Storm Deirdre ran across the North Sea and hit Montrose in December 2018, it covered a huge swath of the course in sand1. The thick, abrasive carpet that greeted the staff in the aftermath of the tempest looked less like a golf course and more like the Namib Desert.

“Storms are getting shorter, but more destructive,” Boyd asserted. “We’re only one big storm away from…well, who knows?” 

Adams agreed that winter storms, if intense, are a huge concern. Thanks largely to that harsh 2018 winter, 26 feet or so was sheared off the 1562 Course’s third tee since last summer, he said. “We knew we were going to lose it, but when it happened, we were all, ‘Wow, it’s gone, it’s not there,’” he said, raising his hands along with his eyebrows. “You’re looking over the edge and you’re thinking, ‘Gee whiz, this isn’t going to stop.’”

According to Adams, Montrose is the most at-risk golf course in Scotland. Local government officials in the Angus Council have raised the idea of engaging in a so-called “managed retreat” of, primarily, the 1562 Course. A few holes can be shifted around, said Adams, but what happens when there is nowhere else to retreat to?

He makes it clear, though, that this isn’t just about the course, sad as its losses are and will continue to be. Lest we forget, there’s a town right behind it, and when there are no longer any dunes to form a barrier to the sea, it won’t just be the golf course that gets consumed. At the current rate of erosion, said Boyd, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we need plans, because this is happening right now, in our lifetimes.”

The erosion along this soft-sediment coastline is notably uneven. The sea is sporadically taking huge bites out of slivers of the shore, providing the most visible clue as to why the antagonizing force here doesn’t lie solely with Mother Nature.

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Those boulders and blocks strewn across parts of the shoreline at Montrose—at the golf course and beyond—is known as rock armor. The principle behind it is simple and straightforward: It breaks up the energy of the waves, reducing their erosional capabilities in that area. Rock armoring has been deployed to the area to protect assets along the coast for more than half a century, according to Shepherd, but the local authorities have stepped it up a gear in recent years. 

Rock armor may just be hefty geological chunks, but as Alastair Dawson, an honorary professor of physical geography at the University of Dundee, explained, getting it set up is “prohibitively expensive.” A privately funded 263-foot stretch of it, for example, can cost upward of $90,000. Yet other, more effective defenses are even pricier, and that is a problem for Montrose. 

As Montrose is both a historic and economically valuable course, Adams reckons it deserves something more robust—a sea wall, perhaps. But he says the powers that be don’t think Montrose stacks up as an economic priority compared to other projects.

Despite an acute awareness of the coastal erosion, then, the local council is still not being given the funds to do anything more substantial than rock-armoring specific weak points. “It’s bloody embarrassing,” Adams sighed. Ideally, he’d prefer a sand motor, a massive, artificially manufactured but environmentally sustainable sand bank that naturally traps more sediment over time and better protects the shoreline. As they can barely get enough funds for rock armor as it currently stands, the sand motor’s higher price tag places it well and truly out of bounds.

Jim Hansom, an honorary research fellow in the School of Geographical & Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow, says that any sort of beach nourishment using sand won from other locations is a sensible option. Even something on a more restricted scale compared to a full-blown sand motor will, he said, “help slow the pace of erosion” by using new sediment-enhanced beaches and new dunes to buffer against the encroaching sea.

Perhaps more important than its still-significant cost and inferior protection, it’s become clear that rock armoring is making the situation worse in the long run.

Two things can happen to a rock-armored coastline over time, Dawson explained. First, the boulders could collapse as the waves get underneath them and slowly but surely remove enough sediment. Second, at the end of the boulder line, in the direction of the drift of the waves, the coast experiences accelerated erosion.

“That’s exactly what’s happening at Montrose,” Dawson said. The scouring will always be high where there are gaps in the rock armor. “The physics of this are pretty simple. It’s entirely predictable that erosion should be so bad at parts of the golf course there because of the mess the coastal defenses have made.”

Sue Dawson, the head of geography and environmental science at the University of Dundee, explained that GSK Montrose, also on the coast, is similarly cognizant of the dangers of coastal erosion. Comparatively flush with cash, the massive respiratory-medicines plant happily paid to rock armor its property when erosion was clearly becoming an issue. This, however, inadvertently boosted erosion farther along the coast, directly on the shores of Montrose’s golf courses.

The sea both dumps sediment and snatches it away. The naturally dominant erosion at Montrose, though, is being catalyzed by the very things that have been put there to stop it. 

There is no sand motor revving on the beaches of Montrose. Despite the widely acknowledged effectiveness of nourishing areas like Montrose with tons of sand brought in from other locations, the cost of a sand motor is prohibitive. To date, the local council has only been allotted enough funds for more rock armor, which the course has resisted due to its ineffectiveness.

There are other golf courses around Scotland without any coastal defenses, Dawson said, and where sand dunes are still cutting back. Their woes could be placed more at the door of changes in sea level and individual storm intensities. Montrose, however, “is a particularly bad case because of poor coastal management.”

The staff at Montrose is well aware of the problems with rock armor. Boyd said that even though it may provide brief relief, rock armor just pushes things farther along in time, as well as elsewhere along the coast. “It doesn’t solve the problem,” he said with a shrug.

Hansom said that the staff at Montrose has acted “very sensibly in recent years,” having worked with the Angus Council to take away certain artificial defenses that weren’t working while at the same time resisting the call to place more potentially erosion-worsening rock armor on the shoreline.

At this stage, there are two extreme options for the rock armor in the area. One, Alastair Dawson explained, is to take all the boulders away across the entire region to allow the coastline to readjust to its natural state. This could potentially slow the erosion, but there is no guarantee.2

Alternatively, assuming funds suddenly came rolling in, all the current gaps in the rock armor could be filled completely with more boulders. This would shield the golf course for some time, but it would also result in a huge uptick  in erosion at the northern edge of it, triggering damage at someone else’s property.

Beyond the counterproductive coastal defenses along Montrose’s shoreline, there is yet another human-made hurdle to overcome. Hansom explained that the harbor entrance at the south of the bay has been heavily dredged of sediment over the past few decades. In fact, he says that since 1984, around 71 million cubic feet of sediment has been taken out of the area, accelerating the erosion that would naturally be taking place.

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There’s little doubt that coastal mismanagement is exacerbating the erosion at Montrose’s shores. But the full picture is bigger than Montrose and wider than the entire Scottish coastline. Climate change, the specter that haunts the world, must be part of the conversation.

Modern climate change, which is unequivocally anthropogenic in its causes, is the problem that intensifies every other issue.3 Simply put, there is no sanctuary from climate change; if your feet are on the ground, it will affect you in some way or another.

Thanks to the breakneck rate at which wealthy and rapidly developing nations are burning fossil fuels, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are rising at a ludicrous speed. Despite increasingly cohesive efforts from ever-more-prominent members of the U.K. and U.S. governments to transition to a low-carbon economy, nowhere near enough is currently being done to combat this trend. 

In fact, global carbon emissions reached a new, grim zenith in 2018. The report, by the Global Carbon Project, says this increase is due to a growing number of cars with internal-combustion engines on the road as well as a renaissance in coal use, which remains frustratingly cheap.

The consequences of the inability to turn the tide in this respect are numerous. Tropical cyclones will become wetter, last longer and be more intense. There will be more droughts and heat waves, both of which will also be more intense. Flooding of coastal cities will become more commonplace. Changing precipitation patterns and more-extreme air-temperature perturbations will increasingly impact agriculture. The continued acidification,4 warming and associated deoxygenation of the world’s oceans will devastate the myriad life-forms that call it home.5

And yes, this means golf courses both on the coast and deep inland, from Scotland to Florida to Kansas to Japan and beyond, will not be immune.

It is a messy, distressing, planet-wide catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. So where does Montrose fit into this horror show? That is where another consequence of an addiction to fossil fuels takes on a starring role: sea-level rise.

The rate and amount of ice lost from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the two largest in the world, are jaw-dropping. Since 1992, Antarctica’s ice sheet has shed 3 trillion tons,6 while Greenland lost a trillion tons between 2011 and 2014 alone.7 As well as probably causing chaos for Earth’s climate, this dumping of land-based ice into the sea will inevitably push sea levels higher. At the same time, the inexorably rising temperatures also cause oceans to physically expand, causing levels to rise ever further. 

According to NASA, the global average sea-level rise is now 0.13 inches per year. Back in the 1990s, it was 0.1 inch per year.8 That may not sound like much, but, spread over the globe, that means cities are flooding and low-lying nations, like the Solomon Islands and Micronesia, are disappearing.9 Importantly, global sea-level rise isn’t increasing steadily; it’s accelerating, according to 25 years of satellite data from NASA and various European institutions.10

Already having risen by around 8 inches since records began in the 1880s, it is projected by NASA to rise by another 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century. Even if every nation abided by its current commitments under the 2016 Paris Agreement, significant and likely devastating sea-level rises are still locked in for large portions of the planet. Including the Scottish coast, which is rapidly losing its geological advantage.

Twenty thousand years ago, the last Scottish ice sheet began to melt, and the land started to rebound upward with all that frigid weight removed. For some time, this eclipsed sea-level rise, but Scottish Natural Heritage estimates that its rising coastal waters are now outpacing this uplift by roughly 0.12 inches per year. This means bad news for Montrose now and eventually for many other precious links courses.

Dynamic Coast, a project involving the Scottish government, Scottish Natural Heritage and the University of Glasgow, among others, has been studying the effects of climate change on Scotland’s coastline since 2015. Using thousands of charts and data going back to the 1890s, it has created 3-D maps designed to assess the ways in which phenomena like sea-level rise are eating away at the soft-sediment shorelines at an increasing rate, with roughly 3.3 feet currently being shorn off by the sea per year.

Dynamic Coast has taken care to stress that building on floodplains—as well as the negative consequences of coastal defenses and industry-led dredging of sediment to make way for new coastal developments—plays a major role in coastal erosion, thus making a preexisting problem worse. But the researchers highlight that everything they are seeing has the unmistakable fingerprint of climate change.

Their research suggests that the dominant drivers of soft-sediment erosion along Scottish shores are the rising local sea levels and the increasingly damaging storm waves brought along by ever-deepening atmospheric depressions—both linked to climate change and exacerbated by past coastal-management choices.

Dynamic Coast, among others, is on the case. Phase 1, which is complete, helped to give a national-scale picture of the problem, Hansom explained. Phase 2, which is ongoing, zooms in on specific locations—including Montrose—to provide more-localized details, to untangle various signals and to advise authorities on how best to turn back the tide as climate change’s tendrils creep ever further.

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One can argue that Montrose’s plight is a microcosm of our species’ wider failings. 

The worsening effect short-term fixes for local problems have on larger-scale issues is not confined only to Montrose. Adams, who otherwise wishes companies like GSK well, pointed to its rock-armor strategy as emblematic of the issues Montrose faces. “There’s got to be a recognition that what they do and what they’ve done has implications elsewhere,” he said.

“This is the story for almost any aspect of climate change,” Shepherd said. “Local issues can be handled on a local level for a bit, but, at the end of the day, unless the international issues are dealt with, you’re in trouble.” 

Climate change cuts across so many things, he added, noting that “joined-up thinking is not something human beings seem to be particularly good at doing.” We are, he said, too content to stay in our individual silos.

Scotland is, as Hansom underscored, doing its best to buck this trend. In 2018, the country got nearly three-quarters of its electricity demand from renewable energy sources, and the Scottish government has introduced a bill to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050.11 But without prolific greenhouse gas emitters like China, the U.S. and the European Union following suit, the rising seas will not relent. 

So, for now, local authorities can do only a handful of things, according to the Dynamic Coast project: Avoid using certain defense mechanisms that worsen erosion, restrict new constructions along at-risk shorelines and move at-risk properties and structures inland if at all possible.

Montrose is no exception to this, and it’s possible that positive changes can be made. If every major stakeholder in Montrose agrees on a mutually beneficial, sustainable course of action, and funds are available to change up and invest in new coastal-management practices such as beach-sediment nourishment, then perhaps the coastal erosion can be slowed. As increasingly higher-quality scientific research continues, the data it produces will better inform stakeholders on the optimal courses of action.

Climate change, however, is an all-encompassing beast, one that can be defeated only by an intensive planet-wide mitigation effort. To date, things don’t look promising. If stakeholders in Angus also fail to work side by side to tackle problematic coastal-management practices, then in the long run it’s hard to see a happy epilogue for Montrose Golf Links. It is a single jigsaw piece in a colossally messy puzzle. 

Hansom offers an apt quotation from the late naturalist John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Adams and Boyd remain as optimistic as possible. Erosion will steal away the shores, but it occasionally transforms some of the holes, like the 1562 Course’s second, into ephemeral works of coastal art. If they can’t stop it, they might as well enjoy it while it remains, and let their golfers revel in it.

Is there anything the public can do, I wonder? That, for Adams, is straightforward.

“I’d like them to play Montrose, to see the predicament we’re in, to support us,” he said. “Give us some support. It’s all we’re asking for.”

Those at Montrose continue doing what they can with the resources available, and raising public awareness—the first step to conquering a problem—is something for which the course is increasingly known. As they’re well aware, nothing lasts forever. I asked Adams and Boyd if they think the golf course will still be there in a century. Both shake their heads. “No,” Boyd replied.  

Footnotes:

1. According to the BBC, the storm covered the course in hundreds of tons of sand. The wet sand from the heavy rains rendered industrial-strength blowers ineffective, forcing the staff to remove the sand with rakes and shovels. (Take me back)

2.A 2014 study by Cambridge University reported that, over a distance of roughly 130 feet, natural flood defenses such as salt marsh reduced the height of large waves in deep water by 18%. (Take me back)

3. According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. (Take me back)

4. According to the Smithsonian Institute’s Ocean Initiative, at least one-quarter of the carbon dioxide released by burning coal, oil and gas doesn’t stay in the air, but instead dissolves into the ocean. Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed some 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, presently around 22 million tons per day. (Take me back)

5. The journal Science reports that oxygen concentrations in both the open ocean and coastal waters have been declining since at least the middle of the 20th century: “This oxygen loss, or deoxygenation, is one of the most important changes occurring in an ocean increasingly modified by human activities that have raised temperatures, CO2 levels, and nutrient inputs and have altered the abundances and distributions of marine species.” (Take me back)

6. The journal Nature reported that while a portion of that loss is due to natural processes—the calving of coastal glaciers is part of the natural life cycle of Antarctica’s ice sheets—its research describes the rapid loss as “an important indicator of climate change.” (Take me back)

7. According to research from the Geophysical Research Letters using the European Space Agency’s CryoSat satellite, along with regional ice models. The same report says the melting process is accelerating.(Take me back)

8. In 2018, the Union of Concerned Scientists combined federal data from a sea-level-rise scenario projected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with property data from the online real-estate company Zillow to predict that $120 billion in coastal residences in the lower 48 United States will be affected by 2045 if greenhouse gas emissions are not severely curtailed. (Take me back)

9. According to separate studies by Australian universities in Queensland and the Sunshine Coast.(Take me back)

10. “This is almost certainly a conservative estimate,” said Steve Nerim, lead author of the study and a professor of aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, a fellow at Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and a member of NASA’s Sea Level Change team. “Our extrapolation assumes that sea level continues to change in the future as it has over the last 25 years. Given the large changes we are seeing in the ice sheets today, that’s not likely.” (Take me back)

11. According to the Scottish government, it was a 6.1% increase over 2017 alone, including a large increase in electricity generated via offshore wind.(Take me back)