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We have a choice: act now or lose our coastlines to the sea

Unlike other years, this winter has been exceptionally stormy with four major events from December to January, and it looks like February is going to start with another significant storm.

Of course, we are in winter and stormy conditions are not exceptional for Ireland, especially if we take a longer view.

The 1990s, for example, were particularly stormy.

The culprits this time are still the same as the last storms, the jetstream tracking very deep storms repeatedly just north of Ireland, the blocking effect of the Arctic cold air excursion into North America, and the contrast between the cold in North America compared with relatively mild temperatures in Europe.

The timing of the storms with very high winds and low barometric pressure couldn't have been worse, with their arrival at high spring tides leading to very high seas and high waves.

One of the key projections for Ireland is that we are likely to experience fewer storms but some will be more severe.

In the context of rising sea levels, the potential impact of these storms, especially when they produce a significant storm surge and coincide with high spring tides, can be devastating, producing coastal flooding and erosion and destruction of sand dunes.

These storms tell us that events of this nature should be expected to occur more frequently.

These storms have clearly pointed out that there is a need for long-term strategic planning for our coastline. The decisions needed are clear-cut: what are we going to protect, as we cannot afford to protect the entirety of our coastline, and what are we going to allow to go back into the sea?

The scale of the damage caused by the recent storms only starts to give us an idea of how much cost could be involved.

So far the damage by the four previous storms has been estimated at €70m but this is only the damage that local authorities face in terms of clean-ups, temporary protection works and more long-term restoration and protection of coastal amenities, roads and other infrastructure.

The damage to Lahinch alone is estimated at €6m. It does not include personal and business losses caused by the storms for which we will get some idea once all the insurance claims are processed, but even that won't give a true figure because not all damage is covered by insurance. The overall cost will eventually run into hundreds of millions of euro.

In the immediate future, there is the potential for more damaging storms to occur as long as the current meteorological conditions remain the same. Even if these storms are nowhere near as big as what we have experienced over the past two months, their potential for damage is much higher than they normally would have been.

This is because the resilience of the coastline to deal with these types of events has been dramatically reduced, and in some cases almost eliminated, because of the scale of coastal damage done by the previous storms, whether man-made defences or the natural coastline.

DR KIERAN HICKEY IS A CLIMATOLOGIST AT THE DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY, NUI GALWAY. AUTHOR OF 'FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT: IRELAND AND CLIMATE CHANGE' AND 'DELUGE: IRELAND'S WEATHER DISASTERS 2009-2010'.

Irish Independent