Planning for climate change

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Scottish Natural Heritage commissioned a report about how path management is likely to be affected by climate change (click on image to view the report). The overall message was the need for careful long term planning by assessing and controlling the risks posed by predictions of warmer wetter winters and drier summers.

paths and climate change

There are two aspects to the predicted impacts of climate change:

Chronic impacts - slow continuous deterioration caused by the gradual change in weather patterns over an extended period of time.

Acute impacts - rapid deterioration caused by severe weather associated with a changing climate.

It may not be possible to eliminate the risk posed by acute impacts and it is almost impossible to predict the probability of extreme weather occurring at a defined location, but this should not be used as an excuse to avoid forward planning. Approaching lowland path management in terms of creating and managing path networks provides a useful perspective for dealing with the challenge of climate change. Looking at a network as a whole gives you an opportunity to identify 'weak links', or critical points where action would be required in the event of acute impacts occurring and to look for alternative options to keep a network 'functional'.

There is limited 'generic advice' that will be useful, because of the enormous variation in paths across Scotland. Therefore a risk assessment process can be used to identify the climate change hazards for your network, the probability of occurrence and the scale of impact. This produces a risk score which can be used to identify high, medium and low risks. These should be sub-divided into risks associated with Chronic and Acute impacts as they may require different adaptation approaches. For each high risk impact a 'control' or adaptation needs to be devised, which will provide a practical response to predicted climate change for the path network. This could include actions that can be taken in advance, such as changing the specification of drainage features to cope with increased surface water, or to identify (and hold) contingency funding to deal with very low probability but catastrophic events.

Some of the climate change hazards will be specific to the location of your paths – for example riverside paths may become more liable to flooding in wetter winters (chronic impacts) and bridges could be at greater risk of damage from extreme flood events (acute impacts). It is therefore important to use local knowledge of the landscape to plan your network to avoid unnecessary risks (e.g. multiple bridge crossings) or to look for adaptations to existing infrastructure to cope with predicted changes (e.g. upgrade unbound surface to semi-bound, bound or porous surface). Planning ahead can allow you to prioritise tasks so that you can make adaptations over a number of years, rather than needing to use emergency funds when something catastrophic occurs that could have been prevented.

Coastal paths are an extremely popular concept and have been built to varying standards across Scotland. They are, in many cases, susceptible to damage during extreme weather events and there may be limited options for providing alternative routes where damage does occur, e.g. following storms. Careful consideration about the long term planning and management of coastal paths is therefore of high importance to ensure that existing investments are adequately protected and unsustainable schemes should be avoided, even where there is demonstrable demand.

Climate change may also bring opportunities in Scotland, particularly if summers do turn out to be warmer and drier as predicted. More people may be inclined to use paths and increased demand could be beneficial to securing resources for more and better paths. Providing opportunities for 'active travel' could also help to encourage more people to switch away from using motorised transport and thereby reduce society's impact on the environment.

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