Special Report: Hope after all for Rossbeigh sand dunes destroyed by 2008 storms

In the final part of our special series on the impact of coastal erosion, Padraig Hoare, Environmental and Sustainability correspondent, hears about efforts to stem the tide at the magnificent Rossbeigh beach in Co Kerry, helped along in the healing powers of Mother Nature, and how funding could further help aid those efforts
Special Report: Hope after all for Rossbeigh sand dunes destroyed by 2008 storms
Dr Jimmy Murphy, Senior Lecturer in the School of Engineering at UCC, pointing towards the area where the sand dunes were breached iin the storms of 2008 at Rossbeigh beach in Kerry. Picture: Dan Linehan

On the face of it, the mass eroding of the sand dunes in Rossbeigh strand near Glenbeigh in Kerry is a worrying sight — but research being done for the past 12 years suggests there is hope for it after all.

In 2008, ferocious storms breached the dunes at Rossbeigh, causing consternation as a gaping hole left hundreds of metres exposed, putting homes across the bay at risk as climate change threatened even more frequent extreme events.

That few hundred metres has now become more than a kilometre, which has given rise to even more concern about what the future holds.

However, there are signs that the dunes are rejuvenating themselves, according to experts from UCC and Science Foundation Ireland’s research centre for energy, climate and marine, MaREI.

Dr Jimmy Murphy is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering in UCC and lead technical engineer of the Lir National Ocean test facility in the SFI MaREI Centre, with more than 25 years of experience in the field.

Dr Murphy and his team have studied Rossbeigh consistently since 2008, monitoring the dune system that has caused such worry for the people in the community.

The sand dunes which were breached in the storms of 2008 at Rossbeigh beach in Kerry. Picture: Dan Linehan
The sand dunes which were breached in the storms of 2008 at Rossbeigh beach in Kerry. Picture: Dan Linehan

“There is about a kilometre of actual dune gone since it was breached in 2008," he said. "When you look at pictures from 2000, it looks very healthy and there was a load of sand at the front of the beach that started to disappear. 

"It may have been a few hundred metres of a breach in 2008, since then you are talking a kilometre-wide breach.” 

While that is a stark and sobering realisation, there are signs of hope, Dr Murphy said — the evidence his team has collected since 2008 suggests the dunes are making a comeback on their own.

“There is a huge amount of sand sitting out there, and what we think will happen is that it will eventually make its way back in here and you will get your dunes reforming," he said. 

"We believe that has happened in the past cycles. We think there is evidence that these breaches have happened before and that they have repaired themselves."

Sand that disappears from the dunes does not just vanish into thin air, Dr Murphy said — it just deposits closeby.

People think when you get erosion that the sand disappears, but the sand has to go somewhere. It is deposited — about 10m tonnes — further out, and we feel it will make its way back.

"It is a natural cycle of behaviour that could take a few decades to repair the breach.

“The start of the degradation of the system started in and around 2000, and now we think it’s on the reverse cycle. We don’t know that for definite however, but that is why it is such a compelling natural area of study.

"We have been studying it since 2008, with a few doing PhDs and Masters on it. We’ve used jetskis, and surveying offshore to see where the sand has gone. It is really enjoyable work. 

Coming to a beach for work? There are worse places to be. I’ve walked this stretch countless times, whereas you can do a lot now with drones and other technologies.

“We believe that you should not interfere with it, but you can help it speed up in rejuvenating itself. What you could do is to raise dykes and plant marram grass, for example. 

"To me, this is at the start of repairing itself. There are patches of grass growing, and if it got little boosts by people planting more grass, it would be hugely beneficial.” 

A pathway through the Marram grass on the sand dunes at Rossbeigh beach in Kerry. Picture: Dan Linehan
A pathway through the Marram grass on the sand dunes at Rossbeigh beach in Kerry. Picture: Dan Linehan

Dr Murphy and his team have been studying Rossbeigh off their own bat, not relying on any funding. An injection of funds for the Rossbeigh project would benefit the entire country, he said.

“I’ve gone to people to let them know it is a unique opportunity here — you have a natural system that is eroding, we should monitor what is happening and model it," he said. 

"Then we can understand its repair so that we have a template for the future. It would be very beneficial to have funding for it.

“We’ve been hammering home with county councils and the Office of Public Works (OPW) that we have to monitor our beaches on a consistent basis. There is risk on any beach. 

"The OPW and county councils look at where there is human risk and property risk — public interest and safety, and they protect those areas,” Dr Murphy said. 

However they tend to come in when there is an immediate problem, they don’t understand what has happened before it. It is a reactive rather than proactive policy.

Funding would allow a vast expansion of what the scientists could monitor, he said.

“What you see here is a snapshot of a beach. A beach is never the same even a week later — you could come back next week and the beach here would not look exactly the same. It is constantly changing, and we have to monitor these changes.

"In summer, there are calm conditions and there tends to be rebuilding of the beach — you monitor that, and understand where the beach is at. 

"In wintertime, you see after all the storms the differences between the seasons. Even to me, the changes can be surprising. You could see channels shifting completely in the space of a few weeks. Waves and tides are great drivers. It’s like a giant laboratory.

“We don’t understand yet the impact of the waves and the currents, and the sediment movement, and where the sand goes — the various cycles. Funding would allow us to monitor waves, currents, the beach itself and how it changes constantly. 

Sand flats on Rossbeigh beach where sand from the dunes lies after being washed out in the storm of 2008. Picture: Dan Linehan
Sand flats on Rossbeigh beach where sand from the dunes lies after being washed out in the storm of 2008. Picture: Dan Linehan

"A PhD student costs €150,000 over four years. If we can understand what is happening here, we can get an idea about other areas. 

"There is no one uniform solution for differing areas, but if we understand the processes and behaviours and the changes that occur, we can then understand better how to protect various communities.” 

The community buying into conservation of their natural resources can be vital, he said.

“Marram grass beginning to grow and take hold is usually the first sign of the rejuvenation. 

"In the meantime, we can take measures to help. When you see bare sand dunes, that is always a bad sign, because the wind can catch the sand and pull it away. 

"It’s always a positive thing to try and hold the sand in place, and the marram grass is a good way of doing it. You could try and encourage sand to deposit with the likes of sand fencing which would trap it, and then plant grass here on it. 

"It’s very easy to do, schoolchildren and members of the community can do it — you don’t have to be an expert.”

Storm damage shook Rossbeigh community to core in 2008

A deserted Rossbeigh Beach, Co Kerry.  Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan
A deserted Rossbeigh Beach, Co Kerry.  Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan

About five acres of dunes, near the end of the Rossbeigh Spit, were cut off, with damage also being assessed in Castlemaine Harbour, Dooks, and Cromane.

The financial crisis of 2008, which was beginning to grip the country, put paid to funding to shore up defences.

Local councillor and businessman, Michael Cahill, called for an emergency motion in the aftermath of the storm.

He said the damage at the beach occurred during a high tide, a gap of 1,100ft had been opened up, and he was  concerned about what was going to happen next.

I had predicted, several years ago, the dunes were eventually going to be breached, but successive governments failed to do anything about the erosion problem. 

"It’s absolutely alarming to see what has happened,” said Mr Cahill at the time.

"People now have justified concerns about what will happen in the greater Castlemaine Harbour area and low lying lands, for which the Rossbeigh dunes have acted as a protection barrier,” he said.

“If action isn’t taken, erosion will continue and the dunes will eventually be washed away completely,” he said.

Only €3m was available nationally at the time to tackle coastal erosion, the meeting was told.

Climate change report: 20% of Irish coastline at risk of erosion

Sea level rise and an increase in the severity and frequency of coastal storms are expected to exacerbate erosion. Picture: Paul Mealey
Sea level rise and an increase in the severity and frequency of coastal storms are expected to exacerbate erosion. Picture: Paul Mealey

“The coastline measures 4,577 km, bordering the Atlantic Ocean on the north-west and the Irish Sea on the south-east," said the report. 

More than 50% of the population lives within 15 km of the Irish coastline. Most of the population is concentrated in cities, with the major coastal cities being Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

“In Ireland, a high relief (500 m) and rocky cliffs interspersed with bays define the topography along the Atlantic coastline. The coast is also characterised by high wave energy generated by winds coming from the Atlantic Ocean, causing it to be more subject to erosion than the rest of the country. 

"It also receives the full force of North-Atlantic storms. As coastal erosion may weaken the structure of these rocky cliffs, which are particularly vulnerable due to their geological nature, parts of it sometimes collapse (either or not after an extreme storm event).” 

The report said sea-level rise combined with an increase in the severity and frequency of coastal storms is expected to exacerbate the problems, especially along the Atlantic coast.

Former minister of state at the OPW, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, presented a memo to Cabinet shortly before he left office after losing his seat in the general election this year.

He called for a coastal erosion strategy, saying it was as vital as flood management.

In March, there was a memo to Cabinet on the issue. 

“A high-level inter-departmental group on managing coastal change, to be jointly chaired by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the OPW, is to initially scope out, over a six-month period, an approach for the development of an integrated, whole-of-government coastal strategy for managing our changing coast, including the governance structures,” read the memo.

Coastal erosion concerns raised in Dáil since 1929

It is not like the concern about coastal erosion had not been flagged in the past.

According to Oireachtas records, Fianna Fáil TD Seamus Moore asked the Dáil in 1929 about the interdepartmental committee recently formed to tackle coastal erosion, warning that bloated bureaucracy and too many cooks spoil the broth.

“There may be already, for all I know, a report available on that subject," said Mr Moore. 

"In any case, presumably, there will be a report in time. If the report were to recommend that certain work was to be taken in hand at once, was urgent, or was at all events desirable, it could easily be that work of that kind could be undertaken by a board of guardians and, of course, it would be additional work for the purpose of providing employment. 

"It would be a pity, therefore, if any amendment passed now were to restrict the board of guardians from allowing men to share in work of that kind.” 

Labour Party TD Richard Corish was adamant that a national strategy be put in place to tackle coastal erosion in 1930.

His statement in 1930 would sound familiar 90 years on.

“I would like to know from the Minister for Finance what is the policy of the government, or have they arrived at any definite conclusion, in the matter of coastal erosion," said Mr Corish. 

Everybody knows that from Cork right around to County Louth all the coastal areas have suffered to a very great extent during the past winter from coastal erosion.

“Appeals have been made to the government during the past three or four months; the position is very serious, but still the ministry are silent in the matter. 

"I know I will be met with the reply that there is a commission at present sitting; but the idea that people have in their minds about these commissions is that they are merely set up to throw dust in the eyes of the public and there is nothing ever done by them.” 

In a Dáil debate in 1948, it was established that there was “at present no statutory authority to enable the State to embark on coastal protection works”.

In a response to a further question about coastal erosion in Rosslare in 1954 by the aforementioned Mr Corish, acting finance minister Frank Aiken said he could not provide funding for protection works.

“I am not, at present, prepared to make funds available out of the National Development Fund towards the cost of works designed to combat coast erosion, as enabling legislation would be required before satisfactory arrangements could be made for their initiation, financing, maintenance, etc," said Mr Aiken. 

"Proposals for such legislation are in course of preparation.” 

Protecting coastlines from erosion was just not worth it, said Mr Aiken.

“The funds are made available for the best possible projects to help along national production. As the Deputy is aware, coast erosion is, perhaps, destroying land of very small value and it would take a thousand times the value of the land to save it.” 

Proposals for legislation would be brought forward “as soon as possible” to deal with coastal erosion nationally, he said.

The TDs representing Rosslare in Co Wexford would not give up the ghost in the 1950s, with TD Denis Allen raising the issue again just months later.

“It might also be, in time, very serious for the 13,000 or 14,000 people who live in the town of Wexford," said Mr Allen. 

"All the records in regard to coastal erosion during the past 40 or 50 years have indicated that Rosslare is one of the places where there has been considerable erosion.

“The history of this erosion in Rosslare would seem to indicate that from the time Rosslare pier was erected — I think it was in 1901 or 1902 — there has been gradual erosion. 

"Authorities on coastal erosion who have examined this matter are all agreed on that. There has been gradual erosion over the past 50 years or so. That was very evident about 1927 or 1928.

The government of the day did not seem to take any action in the matter then either. Things drifted on over the years. 

"The notice of the government and of the local authority was brought to this progressive erosion, and it was pointed out that in time the village of Rosslare, Rosslare golf links, Rosslare Hotel, a number of churches, halls and private residences housing about 1,000 people, would be endangered.

“We have reached that stage, unfortunately, in the year 1954 — 50 years after the start of the erosion, and some authority must now take serious note of the situation," he said. 

“Under the State Property Act, the Foreshores Act, and, I suppose, under Article 49 of the Constitution, there is not any doubt that the State owns the foreshores along the whole coast. No one questions that and the State, therefore, has responsibility to the citizens of the nation.

“There is not any doubt about that nor is there any doubt that it is the duty of the State to preserve the land from encroachment of the sea by suitable defences. 

Every citizen has the right to have that protection where his interests are affected by erosion. I think they have the right actually to demand from the government of the day that protective works be provided where their interests are affected. 

Then finance minister Gerard Sweetman said coastal erosion was “a very thorny problem which has been considered over a long number of years and is still being considered at the moment”.

“It is a very thorny problem," said Mr Sweetman. "It is a problem not merely very thorny in regard to finance, but it is also a problem of such a nature that the technical people are not satisfied about what is the right way of dealing with the matter,” he added.

“It might under certain circumstances be bad business. It might be a question of being penny wise and pound foolish.” 

Grace O’Sullivan: Following a long line of politicians in raising coastal erosion concerns.
Grace O’Sullivan: Following a long line of politicians in raising coastal erosion concerns.

There was a Royal Commission on Coast Erosion in 1911 and an Inter-Departmental Committee in 1931, with another in between in 1919. Little was ever done with the evidence presented.

The Coast Protection Act of 1963 did little to dispel the notion that the State merely paid lip service to the problems caused by coastal erosion.

“Proposals for coastal protection have come in from various local authorities but not, in my opinion, insufficient quantity to establish a clear picture of priorities and in the absence of that no priority list can be drawn up," parliamentary secretary to the finance minister, James Gibbons, told the Dáil in 1965.

"Some proposals have been made to various local authorities who are at present in the process of examining them but as yet there is no priority list in existence.” 

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, more reports and incidents were noted and piecemeal fixes offered, mostly batted back by central government to local authorities, to the fury of local TDs.

In June 2020, Ireland South MEP Grace O’Sullivan called for a national coastal erosion strategy to be implemented once and for all, after Courtown in Wexford suffered dramatic losses on its beach.

“Throughout the country, our shores are being ravaged by erosion which has been exacerbated in recent years due to the effects of climate change," said the Green Party MEP.

“Courtown is a very dramatic example with its beautiful golden sands effectively swept away virtually overnight. But all along the coast, erosion is to be seen, both directly on the shores and in the rock faces of our cliffs and surrounding lands.

“It’s imperative that a coastal erosion strategy is drawn up and put in place. We are a small island nation and our shores are particularly vulnerable to the effects of growing coastal erosion as a result of climate change.” 

The MEP, from Tramore in Co Waterford, said the loss of Courtown as a local amenity is tragic.

It’s depressing to look at the before and after pictures. A picturesque stretch of golden sand just wiped out. 

"The shifting tides and motions of the sea may bring the sand back in time, but in the meantime people in the area have lost the opportunity to enjoy all the fun and obvious health benefits.

“Not alone is our enjoyment impacted by this, it also affects wildlife and biodiversity in the area. 

“Long-term thinking and interdepartmental planning needs to go into developing strategies to prevent some of the damage that will continue to happen if we don’t act now.

“If we don’t act to defend our coastline we will see other examples of beloved outdoor amenities being wiped out by the impacts of climate change.”

- Read part one of our #OceanWeek2020 series, 'Voluntary groups need State support to turn back tide of coastal erosion' here

- Read part two of our OceanWeek2020 series, 'How one man and his dog started an environmental movement in Cork' here

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