“Nature will reclaim its rights”: In Normandy, rising waters threaten the remains of the Landings

“Nature will reclaim its rights”: In Normandy, rising waters threaten the remains of the Landings
“Nature will reclaim its rights”: In Normandy, rising waters threaten the remains of the Landings

Erosion, submersion: 80 years after D-Day, the landing beaches and their remains are threatened by rising water levels linked to climate change, forcing us to rethink the future of these sites of memory. Over more than 100 km, from Ouistreham (Calvados) to Ravenoville (Manche), the Normandy coast is littered with vestiges of June 6, 1944, bunkers from the Atlantic Wall, wrecks and collector’s items bring a region to life and come back to life for tourists this moment in history.

But the sea from which the liberation came threatens its historical heritage today: cliffs and dunes are subject to erosion, marshes, valleys and polders to submersion. To the far west, the wilder “American” beaches of Utah and Omaha “are subject to both erosion and the risk of submersion,” indicates Régis Leymarie, deputy delegate at the coastal conservatory in Normandy. In the British sector, “this is also the case” for Gold.

“From historic places to places of interpretation”

On Juno and Sword on the other hand, “the seafront is padlocked from Courseulles to Ouistreham by works from the 20th centurye century” (dykes and riprap, Editor’s note), only submersion will pose a problem. And it will happen quickly. The D-Day sites “already no longer have anything to do with what the Allied soldiers experienced on June 6, 1944,” explains the geographer. “We are moving from historic places to places of interpretation of history.”

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In low-lying areas such as the Gold Beach marshes, in Ver-sur-mer, “the environment will transform in around ten years, through the phenomenon of percolation”. Sea water passes through the sand under the dykes or rocks, to rise behind and flood the areas reclaimed by man from the sea in the 18e and 19e centuries. Gazing towards the English Channel, Charles de Vallavieille, mayor of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and director of the Utah Beach museum, remembers: “I saw veterans greeting the sea while crying, Utah is the beach, it ‘is the emotion of the beach’.

“We’re coming to the end”

In front of the museum founded by his own father in 1962 on the dune, a few meters from the famous beach, the mayor recognizes “difficulties, we must not deny them”. “But we don’t have the right to put stones, we don’t have the right to anything,” says Mr. Vallavieille, “the law protects the dikes but not the dunes, we have no help even though it is a problem that affects the entire coast: protect one place and the water will go elsewhere.” Few town halls are willing to consider short-term action.

Of the fifteen municipalities contacted in recent months, less than half responded. Three others believe they will not be “impacted” or even “threatened” in the near future. However, the sea carries out its undermining work everywhere, sometimes causing entire bunkers to tip over, as in Graye-sur-mer, a neighboring town to Courseulles. Mayor Pascal Thiberge describes “part of the remains now directly in contact with high water”, and others protected “in the medium term following developments carried out using gentle techniques”.

“Nature will reclaim its rights”

Between the American and British sectors, the Bessin cliffs are not spared. On these difficult-to-access promontories there were several German artillery batteries, such as at Pointe du Hoc, a 30-meter rocky slope climbed by 200 American rangers on the morning of June 6. Property of the Coastal Conservatory but managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the site, deeply fractured by bombing in 1944, has since been harassed by the impact of waves, runoff, salt, thawing and refreeze…

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Why is May 8 a public holiday?

We celebrate the “Armistice” of the First World War on November 11, but the “Victory” of 1945 and the “Capitulation” of Germany on May 8.

Well aware of the problem, the ABMC “secured the area, consolidated 70 meters […] with reinforced concrete walls, installed micropiles to stabilize the ground and a complex network of sensors monitoring the subsoil for any significant movement.” The trails were “set back 20 meters” to ensure public safety, indicates the agency responsible for American military cemeteries and memorials.

The sea level is currently rising by a few millimeters per year: “the perception of evolution is weak on a human scale”, underlines Régis Leymarie. “It’s over two or three generations that we realize it.” “We are coming to the end of the landing sites as we knew them,” he concludes, “nature will reclaim its rights.”

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