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What is the Jurassic Coast and why is it called this?

The Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site which is more popularly known as the Jurassic Coast is England’s first and only natural geological World Heritage Site. The Site is a 95 mile stretch of the south coast from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland in Dorset. The name Jurassic Coast comes from the best known of the geological periods found within it, but in fact the Site includes rocks from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The different rocks tell a fascinating story from ancient deserts to tropical seas throughout the Mesozoic era, between 250 million and 65 million years ago.

What is so special about the Jurassic Coast - why is it worthy of World Heritage status?

The Jurassic Coast is the only place on Earth where 185 million years of the Earth’s history are sequentially exposed in dramatic cliffs, secluded coves, coastal stacks and barrier beaches. The ‘tilt’ of the rocks creates a unique ‘walk through time’ from 250 million to 65 million years ago, through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods as you walk eastwards along the Site. It was awarded World Heritage Site status in December 2001 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) because of its outstanding Earth Science interest.

What makes a World Heritage Site (what are the criteria)?

UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) is responsible for managing the World Heritage Programme. Every year the World Heritage Committee meets to discuss new applications from countries applying for their special places to receive World Heritage Site status. There are 10 Criteria against which new applications are judged (of which four are specific for natural sites). These criteria range from showcasing exceptional architecture that illustrates a significant stage in human history to areas of exceptional natural beauty. For new applications, the proposing country must demonstrate that their property contains an element of cultural and/or natural heritage that has been deemed to be of exceptional value to present and future generations of all humanity. In addition the Committee also reviews the state of conservation of World Heritage Sites on the UNESCO Danger list and decides whether to allocate funds to assist with conservation efforts.

What impact has the World Heritage Site status had on the Jurassic Coast?

The biggest single impact of the WHS status has been the emergence of a clear identity for a stretch of coastline that previously had no unifying sense of identity. In addition, prior to the emergence of the Jurassic Coast brand, the coastline was marketed under a variety of labels. Evidence now suggests that the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site is now emerging as a national brand. The WHS status has also been a stimulus for developing better services for local people and visitors, through the regeneration of existing visitor centres, the development of a Jurassic Coast Arts Programme and enhanced educational offers for local schools. Since 2001, the Jurassic Coast has managed a partnership through a variety of stakeholders across Dorset and East Devon to deliver sustainable tourism initiatives such as ‘Jurassic Coast’ branded buses, trains and enhanced access to the South West Coast Path.

What interesting geographical features can I find along the Jurassic Coast?

The Jurassic Coast has some of the most spectacular and varied coastal geomorphological features anywhere in the world.

In East Devon, the coastline is characterised by steep cliffs composed of Triassic red sandstone. At Budleigh Salterton, the shingle beach is famous for its red Budleigh pebbles which fall out of the gravel cliffs there. 

Further along the coast at Ladram Bay, the cliffs have been eroded into a series of spectacular red sandstone stacks which are home to a variety of nesting sea birds. Landslips are commonly seen along the coast, but the most dramatic slips and cliff falls are seen in the area of coastline between Lyme Regis and Charmouth. The weak beds of Jurassic clays and shales give rise to one of the largest coastal landslides in Europe called Black Ven.

Further eastwards, Chesil Beach is regarded as one of the finest barrier beaches in the world and it stretches for 29km (18 miles) from Burton Bradstock to Portland. Behind the beach itself is The Fleet which is an intertidal lagoon internationally recognised as RAMSAR site for its ecology and biodiversity.

Lulworth Cove
© Oscar Sutton / Unsplash

The impact of coastal erosion of geology can be seen to great effect at Lulworth Cove. Here, waves have cut through the resistant Portland Stone and eroded into the softer sands and clays behind to form a perfect horseshoe-shaped cove. Durdle Door, a natural coastal arch carved out of Portland Limestone can also been seen here.

Old Harry Rocks
© Nick Fewings / Unsplash

At the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast towards Studland Bay, the chalk cliffs have been dramatically eroded into a series of stacks and pinnacles called Old Harry Rocks.

What are the main threats affecting this coastline?

As a World Heritage Site, the Jurassic Coast is internationally recognised for its rocks, fossils and landforms. The boundary of the World Heritage Site begins at the top of the cliffs and continues down to the low water mark on the beach. In addition areas of the coastline where the natural cliffs are not visible (such as esplanades) are not part of the World Heritage Site designation. For the geological and geomorphological features to be maintained, natural processes such as erosion must be allowed to continue and shape the cliffs and beaches. The main threat to the continuation of these natural processes is the construction of coastal defences such as sea walls, rock armour and gabions. These engineering structures disrupt the natural coastal processes of erosion and deposition and serve to stabilise the cliffs, promoting vegetation growth which then obscures the geology and fossils. If this were to happen along the Old Harrycoast, the World Heritage Site status would be threatened. Other threats to the coastline include marine and beach litter and also shipping traffic. In December 2006, the container ship MSC Napoli became grounded on Branscombe Beach spilling over 100 containers containing cars, motorbikes, nappies, biscuits, dog food and shampoo onto the beaches. The clean up operation took two years and litter from buried containers are still being washed up on the beaches of the Jurassic Coast today.

The coastline stretches over two counties and several local council areas. Does this affect how the coast is managed?

Managing the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, is not a straightforward task. The Site is a long thin strip of cliffs and beaches, owned by many different landowners, and protected through a variety of UK conservation and planning laws. The Site is also a very popular destination for tourists and local residents alike, and the ten towns that provide the gateways to the Site all receive large numbers of visitors throughout the year. Moreover, management is not just about conservation or protection. The World Heritage Convention talks of making World Heritage a function in the life of the community, and of promoting awareness and understanding of World Heritage, and the heritage of each specific Site. The approach taken for the Jurassic Coast is one that is "firmly based in a locally led partnership which coordinates activity, facilitating partners to achieve mutually supportive aims, and providing specialist advice where necessary. The partnership is led by the local authorities, particularly Dorset and Devon county councils, but also comprises local, national and international agencies, as well as technical specialists. Local management means that not only are local issues able to be resolved e!ectively, but that the voice of the local community can be heard and play a part in the management of the Site.

What strategies are in place to manage the coastline?

The Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site Management Plan is the key document that sets out the vision, aims and policies for how the site should be managed. The Plan was put together after extensive consultation with stakeholders and the general public, a review of progress against the last Plan (2003 to 2008), and from an analysis of the key issues affecting the Site; such as coastal erosion, climate change, fossil collecting and visitor management. Embedded within the Plan are other key strategies that set out how Science and Conservation, Visitor Management, Education and the Arts should be delivered. It is important to know that World Heritage Site status is not statutory in UK planning law. This means that although the status can influence planning decisions like where to site a coastal defence, it cannot be used exclusively to refuse planning decisions. However, the World Heritage Site is covered in its entirety by one or more conservation designations, made either for geological, wildlife or landscape value. These include designations set out under international and UK law, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), National Nature Reserve (NNR), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and others that have no legal statute, but carry varying degrees of weight in the planning system.

Will the proposed wind farm off the coast have any detrimental effect on the Jurassic Coast?

The proposed Wind Farm will have no detrimental effect on the "Outstanding Universal Value" of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, because it is considered globally important due to the geology, fossils and coastal landforms, none of which would be in any way affected by an offshore wind farm. UNESCO (who award places their World Heritage status) also consider the setting of a Site important, including views to and from it, and so depending on the size of the turbines and the exact locations, the wind farm might have a detrimental effect on the Jurassic Coast's setting. Finally, the location of where the power cables will come ashore is important, and if this was in the Jurassic Coast area, it would be essential that it did not in any way damage or obscure the geological exposures along the coast.

Are there sea defences along the Jurassic Coast or does nature have to run its natural course?

Communities along this vulnerable coastline have faced catastrophic risks throughout history in the form of extreme storms and their impacts. The Great Storm of 1824 destroyed the Cobb, the famous harbour at Lyme Regis, together with numerous sea front properties. The same storm devastated West Bay and the community of Chiswell on Portland. Further east, communities in Devon were also affected such as those at Sidmouth. More recently, the storm of 1974 caused major damage and flooding to West Bay and Seaton while two events in the winter of 1979-80 caused extensive damage when the great barrier beach of Chesil was over-topped and breached by the sea. In light of these events, there are areas of the coastline that have significant line of sea defences like sea walls, offshore revetments and rock armour. Across the coastline, the Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) sets out the strategic approach to how communities can be protected from coastal erosion and flooding. In some areas where housing and infrastructure are at considerable risk (such as Preston beach road in Weymouth), the approach is to hold the line and build and maintain coastal defences for now and the foreseeable future. In other locations such as Charmouth, the hold the line policy will be difficult to maintain in the face of rising sea levels and increased storminess, so the SMP recommends managed realignment where properties and infrastructure must move back as the coast erodes. Where the coastline remains in a natural state, the SMP policy is no active intervention where natural processes are allowed to continue uninterrupted.

Where do most visitors go to when they visit this section of coastline? What problems does this create?

Many visitors to the Jurassic Coast come to enjoy the beautiful, unspoilt coastal scenery and take part in water sports like kayaking, windsurfing and sailing. In the summer months some of the busiest places for tourists are Studland Beach, Lulworth Cove, Weymouth, Lyme Regis, Sidmouth and Exmouth. Some of the common problems associated with heavy visitation to these honeypot sites are congested rural roads and noise and traffic pollution. Once visitors get out and about on the coast, footpaths tend to become degraded quickly with heavy use and an increase in beach litter is commonly found. In areas such as Charmouth and Lyme Regis that are popular places for fossil collecting, visitors do not often read safety information and can either be trapped climbing the cliffs, stuck in mudflows on the landslides or be caught out by the rising ride.

What can we learn from the Jurassic coast?

What can we not learn from the Jurassic Coast? The Jurassic Coast is a fantastic place to learn about and be inspired by natural processes that are constantly revealing aspects of Earth’s rich history to us. The rocks and fossils chart climate and environmental change over 185 million years and tell us a story of vast deserts, deep seas and warm tropical lagoons. In addition the Jurassic Coast is recognised by UNESCO and ICUN (International Conservation Union) as an exemplary model for the management of geological heritage. Our Management Plan has been used as a basis for other World Heritage geological nominations over the world such as the Joggins Bank in Canada and Jeju Volcanic Islands in the Republic of Korea.

If I were to find a fossil there, could I keep it?

Charmouth and Lyme Regis are the best places on the Jurassic Coast to look for fossils. This is because fossils are in plentiful supply through cliffs that are rapidly eroding and slumping towards the sea. The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre offers guided walks and advice on how and when to go fossil collecting, for example at low tide. If you found a fossil on the beach at Charmouth, you would be allowed to take it home and keep it. This is because any fossils that have fallen out of the cliffs are officially considered abandoned and therefore open to collection by visitors. Any fossils that are still in the cliffs in-situ are regarded as the property of the landowner, such as the National Trust. It is illegal to hammer into the cliffs to remove fossils without the prior permission from the landowner and anybody breaking this legislation can be prosecuted. The area of coastline between Charmouth and Lyme Regis is also covered by the Fossil Collecting Code of Conduct which requires that any scientifically important or rare fossils are reported and recorded to staff at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

What kind of jobs could geographers do along the Jurassic Coast?

Almost everyone I meet in my working life has a connection to geography, either through having studied it at school or university! In the Jurassic Coast Team, we are all mainly Geographers, Geologists or Earth Scientists. We all have a variety of roles ranging from tourism and visitor management, site conservation, coastal zone management and education. Along the coast geographers work at visitor centres either welcoming tourists, leading guided nature walks or performing conservation activities, such as monitoring footpath erosion. In addition, where coastal engineering schemes have taken place or are being planned, geographers have provided consultation advice on management of natural processes such as mass movement and future impacts of coastal erosion.

Anjana was interviewed in June 2011.

Dr Anjana K. Ford's biography

Anjana is an Earth Scientist specialising in communicating ideas about geology, geomorphology and processes that form natural landscapes to a wide range of audiences.  She works along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site in Dorset and East Devon as the Education Coordinator with the Jurassic Coast Team. Her role involves strategically developing the Jurassic Coast education programme through high quality education resources, publications, training and projects. Anjana has a degree in Earth Science from Kingston University and a Ph.D. from the University of Southampton. Alongside her role at the Jurassic Coast, Anjana also provides consultancy services on World Heritage education for UNESCO within the UK and overseas.