4sea, Oceans

Coastal management in the North Sea

This article is part of the 4sea Project.

Case study of the island of Sylt

Photo 1

Risks in coastal areas are very high due to climate change impacts, and the threats from sea-level rise are numerous, mostly affecting poor and vulnerable countries. The fact that the share of the global population living close to the sea has never been as large as today enhances the general necessity to reaction on the coasts [1].

Different types of reactions to climate-related impacts

Changes in environmental conditions generally mean for populations an alteration to their way of life [1]. In the case of sea-level rise, in order to profect land against flooding and erosion, different types of coastal management are applied. Approaches to address sea level rise and storm surges can – as we have seen in the many regional cases until now – consist among others in defence and adaptation [2]. In the case of defence, in the North Sea, means e.g. to reinforce existing main seawalls, adaptation creates a second seawall in the hinterland which limits the damage on the first seawall without filling the function of that one. [2] So defence is a very preservative action while adaptation seeks to adjust to climate change impacts. [3]

Cultural differences in adaptation

Adaptation is mostly realised on the state level, and depends not only on the socio-economic development, local knowledge and values of one country but also on the risk perceptions and interpretations which are again different from culture to culture. [4] [5] Local approaches to coastal adaptation are thus varying, too. For example Germany and the USA have different socio-political policies to climate-related changes. Not only since the risks of storm surges in Germany at the Baltic Sea are lower than at the US Atlantic Coast but also because Germans in affected local regions seem to be less afraid of climate change than US counterparts. [6] Nevertheless, we will see that also Germany handles the climate-related impacts.

Case study: Sylt in the Wadden Sea

One example of good but also controversial case study on how to react to risks related to sea-level rise and environmental change comes from Sylt, a German island in the North Sea which is a famous example of coastal management. Sylt is not only an island in Schleswig-Holstein, a regional department lying between the North and Baltic Sea where one fourth of the land surface lies 3m under (West Coast) and 5m under the sea level (East Coast) [7]; it lies more precisely in the Wadden Sea, an UNESCO World Heritage, with a rich biodiversity. [8]


Photo 2

Sylt is a very popular tourist spot. The island is facing a great challenge though: It is shrinking, people even consider it to disappear slowly. The shape of the island is very long and narrow: Sylt consists in the center of a moraine (rocks) and in the south and north end of sand hooks. The center of the island is at present not affected, maybe it will be in the future through a more extreme sea-level rise. The south (Hörnum) and north part (List) of the island though are shrinking over the time. That is due to the sand being washed off by the ocean each year due to storms. [9] Sandy beaches worldwide are affected by erosion through sea-level rise and extreme storms due to climate change. [10]

Coastal management

Different coastal management techniques, that are practiced in other parts of Europe and the world as well, have been tested on the island: For example the use of ‘hard’ protection methods as tetra pods, break waters or stone/steel/wood-dikes. [11] None of these methods has been very effective; some were even worsening the situation by contributing to the erosion of the beach.

photo 3

The only solution so far is the beach nourishment, considered to be a ‘soft’ protection method, where massive amounts of sand are flushed on the beaches. [12] The sand is taken from the ocean close to the shore by big ships. Afterwards the sand is mixed with water and directly flushed onto the beaches. [13] Even though the beach nourishment is considered to be a soft method a lot of the organisms on the beaches are buried by a layer of one to three meters of sand during the process. Some of the organisms die during the nourishment and it takes a while for the ecosystem to recover. Therefore the nourishment does have ecological consequences, but so far they are not dramatic. If the periods between the nourishments get smaller though the ecosystem has less time to recover. [14]

Only a drop in the ocean?

Beside the ecological perspective the method of beach nourishment is also very expensive as well as very ineffective and unsustainable. The federal state of Schleswig Holstein spent 7,5 million Euros in 2016 for the beach nourishment on Sylt. [15] The procedure has to be repeated every year in the fall or/and spring, because the sand is washed off the beaches every winter by storms. The beach nourishment is not only done in order to keep the island as a tourist destination. Moreover the islands and the holms in the Wadden Sea are important for the coastal protection of the mainland.

Complexity and needs of coastal management and adaptation

All in all coastal management is complex. In the case of Sylt more research will maybe lead to a better solution than the beach nourishment, but the sand wash-off will be an even more important topic in the future with continuing sea-level rise and more extreme storm surges due to climate change.

In order to face these challenges the public awareness is essential, especially for adaptation measures [16] where an existing and serious risk perception legitimises taken measurements and efforts of (local) governments [17].

For public awareness and relating thereto risk perceptions we took the first steps during our sea-level rise theme week. Having showed examples of Florida, Kiribati, Bangladesh and the North Sea can only lead to this conclusion: Sea-level rise is a severe threat to (coastal) populations which needs to be discussed in broad public.


About the Authors: Berenike Bick is about to finish her bachelor degree in Environmental Studies at the Leuphana University Lüneburg (Germany) after having done a voluntary ecological year in Sylt (Wadden Sea). Mona Hosseini  is one of two Project Coaches of 4Sea and member of CliMates, studying Environmental and Resource Economics in Kiel (Germany), close to the Baltic Sea.

This article has been written in the context of 4sea. 4sea, a project about the importance of the world oceans, addresses the interdependence between the oceans and climate change, entraining everyone to become ocean lovers – for now through articles and videos on this blog and in November on our own platform. 4sea is a joint project between the youth organisations CliMates, Youth for Ocean and Vitamin Sea. Love it? Stay tuned for our platform!


[1] Reckermann, M./ Omstedt, A./ Pawlak, J. F./ von Storch, Hans (2014): Climate change in the Baltic Region. What do we know?, in: Martinez, G./ Fröhle, P./ Meier, H.-J. (Eds.): Social Dimensions of Climate Change Adaptation in Coastal Regions. Findings from Transdisciplinary Research. München, 19-32.
[2] Schirmer, Michael/ Elsner, Wolfram/ Mai, Stephan/ Wittig, Stefan (2007): Szenarien als methodischer Ansatz im Verbundvorhaben KRIM, in: Schuchardt, B./ Schirmer, M. (eds.) (2007): Land unter? Klimawandel, Küstenschutz und Risikomanagement in Nordwestdeutschland: die Perspektive 2050. München, 59-74.
[3] IPCC (n.y.): Publications and data, Glossary A-D. Online: https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/annexessglossary-a-d.html, (accessed 06/07/2017).
[4] [6] Martinez, G./ Orbach, M./ Frick, F./ Donargo, A./ Ducklow, K./ Morison, N. (2014): The cultural context of climate change adaptation Cases from the U.S. East Coast and the German Baltic Sea coast, in: Martinez, G./ Fröhle, P./ Meier, H.-J. (Eds.): Social Dimensions of Climate Change Adaptation in Coastal Regions. Findings from Transdisciplinary Research. München, 85-102.
[5] [17] Peters, H.P./ Heinrichs, H. (2007): Das öffentliche Konstrukt der Risiken durch Sturmfluten und Klimawandel, in: Schuchardt, B./ Schirmer, M. (eds.) (2007): Land unter? Klimawandel, Küstenschutz und Risikomanagement in Nordwestdeutschland: die Perspektive 2050. München, 115-144.
[7] Hofstede,J./ Probst, B. (2014): Integriertes Küstenschutzmanagement in Schleswig-Holstein. Online: http://www.ikzm-d.de/infos2014/pdfs/16_IKM_SH.pdf (accessed: 15.07.2017).
[8] Wadden Sea (n.y.): There is a place where heaven and earth share the same stage. Online: http://www.waddensea-worldheritage.org/ (accessed: 15.07.2017).
[9] [11] [15] dpa (2017): Sylt bekommt neuen Sand – Habeck erklärt, warum das wichtig ist. Online: https://www.shz.de/lokales/sylter-rundschau/sylt-bekommt-neuen-sand-habeck-erklaert-warum-das-wichtig-ist-id16449921.html (accessed: 15.07.2017).
[10] Schlacher, T.A., Schoeman, D.S., Dugan, J., Lastra, M., Jones, A., Scapini, F., McLachlan, A., 2008. Sandy beach ecosystems: key features, sampling issues, management challenges and climate change impacts. Mar. Ecol. 29, 70–90.
[12] [14] Menn, I., Junghans, C., Reise, K., 2003. Buried alive: Effects of beach nourishment on the infauna of an erosive shore in the North Sea. Senckenberg. Maritima 32, 125–145.
[13] Speybroeck, J., Bonte, D., Courtens, W., Gheskiere, T., Grootaert, P., Maelfait, J.-P., Mathys, M., Provoost, S., Sabbe, K., Stienen, E.W.M., Lancker, V.V., Vincx, M., Degraer, S., 2006. Beach nourishment: an ecologically sound coastal defence alternative? A review. Aquat. Conserv. Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 16, 419–435.
[16] Stephani-Pessel, H./ Bugey, A./ Steinhardt, U. (2014):Tapping the full scope of action. Experiences from a case study on stormwater management,  in: Martinez, G./ Fröhle, P./ Meier, H.-J. (Eds.): Social Dimensions of Climate Change Adaptation in Coastal Regions. Findings from Transdisciplinary Research. München, 117-130.

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