Friday, April 12, 2013

Our changing landscape

The Atlantic Ocean... beautiful but lethal
Last Christmas, Elinor bought the DVD of zoologist Nigel Marven’s hilarious ‘Walking with Dinosaurs: The Giant Claw & Land of Giants’ as an extra present for Amber, 8, and Imogen, 6. 

In these films, Nigel time travels back to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and interacts with them (okay, you do need to suspend your disbelief ever so slightly). It’s real, laugh out loud entertainment and the dinosaur encounters look very realistic. There’s one memorable scene when a giant herbivorous dinosaur sneezes all over Nigel and there are frequent near-death encounters with smaller species who view him as a timely snack.

Harri and I loved it; the children… not the slightest bit impressed.

Maybe it’s because I know I’ll never experience the thrill of time travel firsthand that I’m riveted by the BBC’s computer-generated glimpses into prehistory (Walking with Cavemen is another favourite). What fascinates me most is how the earth's landscape and climate have changed dramatically over millions of years and continues to change right in front of our eyes.

 Europe's oldest skeleton was found in Goat's Hole Cave
The BBC website’s In Pictures section currently features a fascinating article about Britain’s Lost Villages. Photographer Neil A White’s project documents the massive coastal erosion along the North East of England. A previously inland village, Skipsea, is gradually getting closer to the sea, its coastal road all but collapsed, and the fate of a static caravan site increasingly uncertain.

Skipsea’s current-day residents have to live with the knowledge that nearby cliffs are eroding at an annual rate of nearly two metres. It's scary stuff and they are not alone. Coastal erosion is also taking place in other parts of the UK.

A house in Torquay, bought at auction in 2010 without a structural survey, is now teetering so close to the cliff that it’s uninhabitable. Only last summer, a 20-metre stretch of the South West Coast Path collapsed at Burton Bradstock, tragically killing a young woman who was walking on the beach below.

In the series A History of Ancient Britain (screened on BBC2 in 2011), archaeologist Neil Oliver was shown the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, a skeleton discovered on the Gower peninsula in 1823 and now believed to be the oldest human remains in Europe.

The Upper Paleolithic era human skeleton, so-named because it was dyed in red ochre and was originally believed to be female, was found during an archaeological dig at Goat’s Hole Cave, between Port Eynon and Rhossili.  

The Bristol Channel has replaced a tundra plain
The skeleton is unusually complete and is indisputably  Homo sapiens. Yet despite the location of his bones, this young mammoth hunter, who lived over 30,000 years ago, was not a coastal dweller. As Britain descended into the last Ice Age we were still connected to Europe; the sea level was 80 metres lower than today and the cave where he was buried would have been located on the edge of a large tundra plain stretching south towards Exmoor.

Scientists now believe that dinosaurs disappeared off the earth over 66 million years ago, a timescale which makes 30,000 years seem relatively recent. Yet, during that period, our landscape has changed dramatically. 

And as Neil A White’s photographs demonstrate so graphically, the sea has continued to claim the land surreptitiously, with just the occasional dramatic event. 

The Wales Coast Path officially opened in 2012 and yet already one section between Port Eynon and Oxwich is so badly eroded that a diversion is in place. 

The ever-changing nature of the Gower coastline
If you ignore the cost to human lives, the ever-evolving coastal landscape is actually rather exciting. 

One of my favourite exhibits at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff was always the counter which graphically illustrated how continental drift was widening the gap between Europe and the US at the rate of one inch a year (I don't know if it's still there). The gradual movement of tectonic plates is imperceptible; over a human lifetime, the Atlantic Ocean will have widened  no more than the length of a dining room table but no-one will notice it happening. But over millions of years…as I said, it's exciting stuff. 

The Gower peninsula we know today didn't exist until the last Ice Age ended about 12,000 years ago and sea levels rose rapidly. And the landscape is still changing, most noticeably on its north coast.

At least from the Roman period, the three-mile wide Loughor Estuary was an important access point for boats. Penclawdd was a thriving port and the numerous pills that run between the mud flats were easily navigable.

Unfortunately for the village, the estuary’s main channel naturally fluctuated and, in the late 19th century, a wall intended to confine it to the north side of the estuary had the unwanted effect of accelerating the silting up of the estuary on the Penclawdd side. Now, rather than facing the open sea, the village looks out over salt marshes and mud flats, at the wild ponies grazing on them. 

We’ve grown accustomed to witnessing constant changes to our built landscape; new housing estates springing up everywhere (one last year in Rhiwderin), constant road-building, office refurbishments and demolition (this week, the long-overdue tearing down of my former workplace, County Hall, Croesyceiliog).  

Natural disasters aside, the natural landscape undergoes a more subtle transformation, with gradual processes like erosion going unnoticed during a human lifespan. 

The changes are happening though, day by day, year by year, whether we realise it or not. 

And 30,000 years from now, the Gower peninsula - indeed, the whole of the Welsh coastline - will be dramatically changed from the current-day landscape.

1 comment:

  1. Great post mate, isn't nature wonderful - even when it's doing its worst, it's fascinating to watch. Wish we lived closer so we could go on walks together :)


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