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Headlines Published on 7 January 2009

Title Scientists discover artwork can tell environmental story

The impact of climate change on Earth can be measured through works of art like paintings and watercolours, British researchers say. According to them, engineers and coastline managers could use artwork to better understand the threat of rising sea levels for example.

View from 'Portsdown Hill' by William Daniell (1824). This view looks across an open vista of creeks and islands before the expansion of the 19th century development © Daniell
View from 'Portsdown Hill' by William Daniell (1824). This view looks across an open vista of creeks and islands before the expansion of the 19th century development
© Daniell

Protective structures of stone or concrete like breakwaters and seawalls as well as groynes (rigid hydraulic structures constructed from ocean shores or from banks in rivers that interrupt water flow and restrict sediment movement) have been used over the years to keep seawater back and protect coastal towns and resorts.

What these protective measures have succeeded in doing, however, is exacerbate the problem by moving down the coastlines. Insight into long-term effects of coastal defences could however be gained from various works of art.

Dr Robin McInnes of the Coastal and Geotechnical Services in the UK decided to combine geography and art to test his theory that people could learn about coastal evolution over the centuries by examining paintings, prints, engravings and drawings.

Dr McInnes and his fellow University of Portsmouth researchers examined the works of 400 artists who used the coastal scenes on the Isle of Wight and the mainland coast from Hurst Spit to Selsey Bill between 1770 and 1920. The researchers compiled a list of names of the artists who could be considered reliable witnesses, and they also set up a ranking system for those remaining. According to them, 22 artists whose works could be trusted as a fair and accurate depiction of the coastline remained.

'Using art in this way gives us a clear picture of the scale and pace of coastal evolution as well as environmental and developmental change,' Dr McInnes explained. 'It helps us understand how it has been necessary for people who live on coasts to adapt to changing conditions over the centuries; in some locations this has involved retreating to higher or more stable ground further back from the coast.'

Dr Jonathan Potts, a coastal policy expert at the School of Environmental Design and Management of the University of Portsmouth, said: 'Being able to demonstrate how the coastline is changing by using art helps local people and planners and engineers see the bigger picture of the coast.'

Dr Potts explained that erosion can be monitored and beaches can be measured using artwork. The research team has developed a model that could help people determine what measures should be taken when threats to the coastlines emerge.

'You can tell people how the coast is changing but these artworks are dramatic and immediate and because some are even familiar, much loved paintings, they jolt people into taking notice,' the coastal policy expert said. 'It is a really novel way of using art and it strikes a chord with local people because they can see straight away how their natural environment has changed,' he added. 'This is a qualitative approach which helps support other more familiar scientific and technical tools available to coastal scientists.'

More information:

  • Coastal and Geotechnical Services
  • University of Portsmouth

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