Paintings, watercolours and prints can be used by those who manage Britain's coastlines to look back in time and better understand the threat of rising sea levels and climate change. The risks of flooding, marine erosion and landslips are a hot topic for engineers, planners and coastal managers as well as for people who live on vulnerable coasts.
In the past seawalls, groynes and breakwaters have been used to hold back the sea and such structures protect many of Britain's coastal towns and resorts. But this often had the effect of moving the problem further along the coast.
Thanks to an inspired idea, scientists now have a new tool to better understand how to tackle the threats to Britain's coastal populations, assets and natural resources. A model has been drawn up to turn one man's hunch into hard science that can be used in Britain - and other parts of Europe - to help decide whether to defend the coast or allow nature to take its course.
The result can be used to look back in time with much greater clarity to study the impact mankind has had on coasts to help determine what works and what doesn't. It will give planners, engineers and people who live on coasts insight into the long-term effects of providing coastal defences to help prevent erosion and flooding.
Dr Robin McInnes, who runs Isle of Wight-based consultancy Coastal and Geotechnical Services, had the idea to combine his two passions, geography and a love of art, to test his theory that we could learn a lot about coastal evolution over the centuries by examining paintings, drawings, prints and engravings.
He and his fellow researchers from the University of Portsmouth examined the work of 400 artists who painted, drew or engraved coastal scenes on the Isle of Wight and the adjacent stretch of mainland coast from Hurst Spit to Selsey Bill between 1770 and 1920. They drew up a shortlist of those artists whose could be considered reliable witnesses and then developed a ranking system for those remaining. They were left with 22 artists whose works could be trusted as a fair and accurate depiction of the coastline.
Dr McInnes said: '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. 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 specialist in coastal policy at the University of Portsmouth's School of Environmental Design and Management, said: 'Being able to demonstrate how the coastline is changing by using art helps local people and planners and engineers see the bigger picture on the coast.
'You can monitor erosion and measure beaches and 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. 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.
'This is a qualitative approach which helps support other more familiar scientific and technical tools available to coastal scientists.'
Dr McInnes, Dr Potts and Lindsey Bates, a Masters student at Portsmouth and environment officer with Chichester District Council, will present their research findings at an international conference in Venice next week (26 November). They anticipate interest in their research from other European countries including France, Spain and Italy which face similar problems arising from coastal natural hazards and which also have a rich art history.
The research was funded by Dr McInnes's award under The Crown Estate's Caird Fellowship 2008, which is sponsored by The Crown Estate and National Maritime Museum. The full report is expected to be published next month.