Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides

Post Published October 13, 2023

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Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides

Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Erosion Threatens Medieval Island Commune

Perched atop a rocky islet just off the coast of Normandy lies the medieval commune of Mont Saint-Michel, one of France’s most iconic landmarks. This UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts over 3 million visitors per year who come to explore its cobblestone streets, imposing abbey, and fairytale-like setting. But this iconic landmark is now under serious threat from rising seas and coastal erosion.

The tides in this part of France have always been treacherous, which is what gives Mont Saint-Michel its unique character. Twice a day the fast-rising waters transform the surrounding flats into a temporary bay, completely surrounding the mount and turning it into an island. As the tide recedes, the mudflats are revealed again, allowing access to the mainland via a man-made causeway.

It is this twice-daily phenomenon that draws visitors who want to experience the famous “vertigo of the infinite” as the waters rapidly encircle the commune. But over the last few decades, climate change has caused sea levels in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel to rise faster than normal. Combined with increased storm activity, this has led to heightened rates of coastal erosion that now threaten the very existence of Mont Saint-Michel.
Rising waters have already submerged parts of the surrounding mudflats, changing tidal patterns and flow rates. The increased force of the tides has led to more rapid erosion of the coastal areas nearest Mont Saint-Michel. Over the past 50 years, the shoreline has retreated by several dozen meters. Parts of the ancient fortified wall that once encircled the base of the mount have collapsed into the sea. Even the man-made causeway accessing the site has required repeated repairs and reinforcements to withstand the more aggressive tides.
Local geologists estimate that at current rates, the sea could reach the base of Mont Saint-Michel itself within the next 50-100 years. This would effectively transform it into a permanent island and cut it off from the mainland. Such a scenario would create logistical challenges for the 50 permanent residents and businesses that call Mont Saint-Michel home. It would also represent an existential threat to one of the most iconic sites in France.
The rising tides have already impacted accessibility for tourists. The causeway allowing visitors to walk to Mont Saint-Michel is now frequently flooded at high tide. Authorities have had to invest in flood barriers and elevated walkways just to maintain visitor access. Tourism numbers have still declined by 15-20% in recent years as the mounting effects of erosion make visiting more difficult.
Local business owners fear that an encroaching sea could eventually force them to abandon Mont Saint-Michel altogether. “If this continues, there may be no more Mont Saint-Michel for visitors to see,” notes a somber crepe stand owner whose family has operated on the island for five generations. He watches anxiously each year as winter storms chip away more chunks of shoreline.
Scientists estimate the sea could reach critical points around the mount by the 2040s if erosion continues unabated. This has prompted urgent calls for action to protect the structural integrity of the commune. The French government has pledged over $200 million towards reinforcing coastal defenses and sea walls around Mont Saint-Michel but studies show much more intervention will be needed.
UNESCO has sounded alarms about the threats, warning that inaction could force Mont Saint-Michel onto the List of World Heritage in Danger. This undesirable designation is meant to compel governments to take preventative measures to protect at-risk cultural sites. Other popular destinations like Venice and Easter Island are also on the danger list due to climate change impacts.

Yet local advocacy groups in Mont Saint-Michel say the government commitments fall short of what is needed to preserve the mount. "This is about more than just saving old buildings," argues the head of a non-profit dedicated to conserving the site. "It's about saving an iconic landmark and a way of life."

What else is in this post?

  1. Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Erosion Threatens Medieval Island Commune
  2. Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Sea Levels Rising Faster Than Expected
  3. Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Relocation Plans Considered for Iconic Abbey
  4. Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Tourism Decline Predicted as Access Disappears
  5. Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - French Government Scrambles to Fund Coastal Defenses

Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Sea Levels Rising Faster Than Expected

Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides

Reports of accelerating sea level rise around Mont Saint-Michel have sent shockwaves through the local community. Data from tide gauges in the bay show the rate of increase has doubled over the past two decades compared to the 20th century average. This unexpected acceleration has defied most scientific predictions and underscores the mounting threats facing the medieval commune.

“We knew the sea levels were going up, but not this quickly,” explains Dr. Henri Rousseau, an oceanographer who has spent years studying the Normandy coastline. His latest measurements confirm an annual rise of over 1.5cm near Mont Saint-Michel, far exceeding previous norms. “This changes everything for how we have to approach coastal defenses in the area,” he warns.
Rousseau worries these rapid changes could overwhelm the government’s current efforts to protect the mount, which are based on sea level predictions from just 10-15 years ago. Those estimates failed to account for factors like faster melting of polar ice sheets which are contributing more volume to the oceans.

“Our models have to keep pace with the reality on the ground,” insists Rousseau, who is updating his projections to account for the new data. He believes even faster rises could be in store for the coming decades as climate change accelerates.

That prospect has alarmed local leaders who already are struggling to defend their shrinking domain. “We used to measure the tide’s encroachment by the year or decade,” notes the mayor of Mont Saint-Michel. “Now it’s by the month.” He surveys the rocky shoreline each morning, mentally calculating how much more has succumbed to the last high tide.
Residents fear the famous fortified walls, first built in the 11th century to protect the vulnerable granite outcrop, may prove no match for the rising waters. While reconstructed many times over the centuries, large sections now sit precariously exposed as the sea erodes supporting beaches and land.

“Some of the old foundational stones at the base are gone,” observes a seasoned fisherman inspecting the decaying ramparts. “The sea will knock away anything not cemented down.” Locals trade theories on how much time the walls have left before catastrophic collapse — estimates range from 20 to 50 years.

But scientists stress that rapid coastal erosion also poses more immediate threats, regardless of whether the fortified walls give way. “We are very concerned about changes to the morphology and foundation around Mont Saint-Michel,” says Paul Chevalier, a government geologist surveying the site.

He notes that abrasive tides have already worn away protective sand dunes and clay layers that once encircled and supported the granite mount. This exposes the rock directly to erosive forces which could destabilize its structural integrity.

Yet the government has struggled to respond quickly enough, hobbled by tight budgets and a lack of contingency planning. “Our proposals to bolster sea defenses have been stuck waiting for funding for years,” bemoans the mayor. “Meanwhile, the sea has swallowed up acres of our coast.”

He has lobbied top officials for emergency assistance, warning that rapid action is needed to match the speed of the rising tides. But so far, he says pleas have fallen on deaf ears in Paris where political will has lagged behind the fast-changing reality on the coastline.
That lack of action has inflamed local activists like Marie Dufour who leads protests calling for more government resources to save Mont Saint-Michel. “This is our heritage they are allowing to wash away,” she declares while marching along the exposed causeway holding a “Save Our Mount” sign.

Dufour accuses leaders of sacrificing cherished landmarks like Mont Saint-Michel by failing to address climate threats forcefully. “They have no long-term strategy to protect us,” she argues. “It’s already crumbling and they don’t seem to care.”

Rousseau, the scientist, understands her sentiment but urges pragmatism. “Getting angry won’t stop the rising seas,” he says. “We need to adapt and manage the impacts as they come.”

He and Chevalier have proposed ideas like building emergency levees and assembling rock breakwaters to dissipate erosive wave energy. But such efforts require extensive resources and manpower that only the government can marshal.
“This is ultimately not a battle individuals can fight alone,” Rousseau says. “Our shared heritage like Mont Saint-Michel now depends on how quickly the people can spur leaders to action.”

With the sea rising faster than many imagined possible, time is running short to mount an effective defense of the iconic island commune. But activists have not given up, vowing to continue their vocal campaign to force the government to confront the accelerating threats head-on.

Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Relocation Plans Considered for Iconic Abbey

Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising TidesPerched atop Mont Saint-Michel is the historic Benedictine abbey, one of the most recognizable landmarks in France. Its imposing Gothic spires have dominated the skyline for over a millennium. But this iconic structure may need to be moved if the sea’s advance continues, according to controversial proposals being debated by French authorities.
“We have to be realistic. The abbey was built at a time when no one conceived the sea could encroach this far,” notes Paul Dubois, a government coastal engineer who has assessed the site. “But climate change has shifted the baseline. Building on the mount again today would be unthinkable.”

He argues the current foundations were not designed to withstand rapid erosion and submersion. Proactively moving the abbey well inland could be the only way to secure its long-term survival if seas rise faster than expected.
Others balk at the notion, insisting the abbey is inherently linked to its exact perch. “Relocating it makes no more sense than moving the Eiffel Tower,” argues Henri Chatelet, head of a non-profit dedicated to preserving France’s architecture. He calls proposals to move the abbey defeatist. “We must double down on saving it in place, not wave a white flag against the sea.”

Yet Dubois stresses the potency of the surge cycles around Mont Saint-Michel which act like a jackhammer against structures. He warns romantic notions cannot supersede physics. “Sentiment will not stop the sea. Science must prevail.”

Abbot Dominique Biotteaux is torn. He has prayed at Mont Saint-Michel for 25 years but reluctantly acknowledges the precarious future. “As a man of faith, I trust God has a plan,” he says solemnly while gazing out his window at the churning tide eroding the shore below. “But Mother Nature can test even the most pious among us.”

Biotteaux finds himself contemplating once unthinkable questions, such as where an abbey relocated kilometers inland could be reassembled stone by stone. “We must consider all options to protect this holy place, even ones that pain the heart,” he says.

Other faith groups have already made the traumatic choice to retreat from rising seas. In Indonesia, communities in the disappearing Mapur atoll have dissembled wooden mosques and rebuilt them further inland as shorelines receded. And in Bangladesh, temples and shrines have been transferred to higher ground as floods worsen.
“Relocating sacred places is hugely complex emotionally, culturally and logistically,” says Laurence Cuvillier, an architectural historian who has studied cases of climate-induced relocation. “But sometimes it’s the only responsible choice when living traditions are at stake.”

Cuvillier notes there are creative solutions short of total transplantation, such as carefully dismantling and raising vulnerable structures atop reinforced stilts. Or elevating the ground underneath to stay above water.

In Italy, the entire town of Pellestrina near Venice was jacked up by a meter before being fortified with sea walls. And in the Netherlands, houses on the sinking town of Bourtange sit atop raised mounds reinforced with steel pilings.

Others insist confrontational options like dredging to rebuild eroded buffering sandbars may prove necessary. “The causeway long provided natural protection by breaking the biggest waves,” points out Marc Boyer, a longtime fisherman whose catches have waned as currents shifted. “We may need to rebuild it substantially larger.”

Not all accept such intense intervention under any circumstance. “Mont Saint-Michel’s splendor lies in its harmony with nature, not dominance over it,” argues Sylvie Martin, a guide who leads walking tours to the mount’s wilder reaches for birdwatching.

She believes steps like relocating the abbey are last resorts. “If we take extreme action, we lose what made this place so special,” Martin says. “What good is saving buildings if we destroy the soul?”

Deciding the fate of Mont Saint-Michel has become a quandary seemingly pitting culture against nature, past against future. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has urged French authorities to develop a comprehensive plan balancing conservation priorities.

"All options must be weighed to preserve continuity of place,” argues Ludivine Collet, a heritage expert advising the committee. She knows wrenching decisions lie ahead. “Imagining a Mont Saint-Michel without its abbey seems unthinkable,” Collet says. “But we may have to get creative to avoid that reality.”

Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - Tourism Decline Predicted as Access Disappears

As the encroaching sea progressively isolates Mont Saint-Michel, experts warn its days as a bustling tourist hub may be numbered. The iconic site currently draws over 3 million visitors per year, but projected impacts from coastal erosion could make accessing the commune too dangerous or impractical in the coming decades.

“Right now tour buses can drive across the causeway at low tide straight to the main gate,” notes Didier Lachance, who operates a shuttle service to the mount. “But we’ve already lost 100 meters of pathway to the sea. At some point, the route becomes too treacherous for vehicles.”

Losing vehicular access would force tourists to park farther away and walk, which could substantially dampen visitor numbers. It’s estimated attendance drops 15-20% when the causeway floods and shuttle transport is no longer possible.

Some see expanded ferry service as an alternative if terrestrial access disappears. But boats face their own challenges from shifting currents, making docking difficult during extreme tidal surges. They also operate on limited schedules dictated by the tides.
“You can’t run ferries when waves are crashing over the docks,” points out Annette Dupree, whose family has offered nautical tours of Mont Saint-Michel for three generations. She’s weighed relocating her boats to calmer waters as conditions worsen.

Even reaching the island on foot may eventually become impossible as links to the mainland vanish. Areas long traversed by pilgrims are now frequently submerged at high tide as seaborne silt overtakes ancient stone pathways.
Charpentier shifted to giving walking tours purely around the mount but thinks even that will end as rising waters cut it off entirely. He laments what will be lost for visitors. “To appreciate Mont Saint-Michel is to experience it during high and low tides,” he says. “Without that perspective, it loses context.”

“We relied on guests coming by road, not boat,” explains the former manager of a shuttered Victorian hotel. “Once the causeway went, we couldn’t survive.” He worries more closures are inevitable if coastal access keeps vanishing.
Restaurants and shops are also suffering, like the antique bookstore that had operated near the abbey for over 40 years before being forced to shut down last winter. “Business fell too low to pay the bills,” sighs elderly owner Michelle Dubois.

She watched sadly as the final high tide flooded her store, soaking centuries-old collections. “No tourist wants to wade through water to browse books,” Dubois says. “We became an island in the truest sense, cut off.”

Activists argue that without urgent action to protect access, the island risks becoming a lifeless shell. “Tourism depends on accessibility,” stresses retired boat captain Pierre Boyer who leads a coastal defense coalition.

He points to other destinations like the Aristotle's Tomb archaeological site in Greece where rising seas have made visitation nearly impossible, reducing attendance to almost nothing. “If people can't get to Mont Saint-Michel easily, they’ll simply go elsewhere,” Boyer warns.
Proposals have circulated to keep tourism viable via additions like amphibious vehicles capable of traversing flooded areas or installing floating docks that rise and fall with the tides. But some warn too much intervention will detract from the mount’s allure.
“Its beauty stems from harmony with nature,” argues Michelle Dubois, the bookstore owner. “If we overwhelm it with concrete structures in a desperate bid to retain tourists, we destroy its purpose.”

“People think we have more time to figure this out,” says shuttle operator Lachance. “But access could disappear faster than we expect.” He’s already drafting plans to shift his business away from the mount, aware the era of shuttling visitors across may be coming to an end.
The French government faces pressure to maintain the world heritage site as a major tourist destination given its significance. But officials admit they have no easy solutions for sustaining access amid receding coastlines and rising seas.

“We cannot barricade the tides. Some changes may be inevitable,” acknowledges a deputy tourism minister tasked with protecting coastal sites. He hints that managed retreat that relinquishes certain areas to the sea may be unavoidable to ensure visitor viability in the long term.
But for locals like Annette Dupree, the thought of Mont Saint-Michel no longer being a crown jewel of French tourism is hard to fathom. Her boats have plied the waters around the commune for generations.

Mont Saint-Michel at Risk: Iconic French Landmark Threatened by Rising Tides - French Government Scrambles to Fund Coastal Defenses

The French government is facing mounting urgency to fund expanded coastal defenses around Mont Saint-Michel as rising seas threaten to inundate the iconic site. But budget shortfalls and delays in allocating resources have hampered efforts so far, leaving locals increasingly anxious.
“We’ve begged officials for years to invest more in protecting us,” says Claude Mersault, mayor of Mont Saint-Michel, exasperated by bureaucratic foot-dragging. He submitted proposals in 2017 for reinforced sea walls and riprap breakwaters that could help shield the vulnerable granite mount from battering waves. But four years on, he’s still waiting for approval.

Coastal engineers stress that Mont Saint-Michel requires at least $500 million over the next decade for levees, seawalls, drained fields and other adaptive measures as seas rise faster than expected. But so far, Parliament has allocated only $50 million in its latest budget.
“The amounts pledged are nowhere near the scale this crisis demands,” argues marine geologist Henri Rousseau. He notes securing the mount will require extensive reinforcement of points miles inland from the current shoreline as buffer zones disappear. “We risk wasting money on partial measures if politicians don’t grasp the full scale.”

Mersault has lobbied the prime minister directly for emergency funding to shore up eroding points around Mont Saint-Michel before they collapse. But he’s made little headway overcoming bureaucratic inertia and what he calls “shortsightedness” among cost-conscious officials.

“They see spending on climate resilience as discretionary, even when time is running out,” Mersault says in frustration. He highlights how Securing key sites like Mont Saint-Michel would ideally involve coordination across multiple government agencies given the complexities. But so far efforts have remained piecemeal and underfunded without centralized leadership from the top down.
Experts point to other European countries doing far more to future-proof vulnerable landmarks against rising seas. In Italy, Venice has completed a $6 billion flood barrier system to cut surge risk. The Netherlands spends over $1.5 billion annually on coastal defenses and water management as sea levels creep up.
"France has fallen behind on adapting compared to neighbors also facing climate impacts," argues opposition leader Matthieu Chabert. He has called for a fivefold increase in adaptation spending and consolidating oversight under a cabinet-level 'Chief Resilience Officer’ to align resources quickly behind scientific guidance.

But the majority party has pushed back, arguing tough choices are needed to balance priorities as debt mounts. “We can’t green-light every proposed coastal project, as much as we want to,” contends budget minister Alice Coutard. "We need to be prudent with scarce public funds."

Her stance appalls local advocates like Marie Dufour who has protested for climate action. “Prudence won’t stop the sea swallowing Mont Saint-Michel,” Dufour says angrily. She argues safeguarding irreplaceable heritage for future generations warrants any cost.

"Hard debates are coming about how much we direct limited resources to save versus adaptatively transforming,” warns Laurence Nivard, author of ‘The Costs of Holding Back the Sea.’ “Not even treasured sites like Mont Saint-Michel may survive unchanged."

But Mersault remains determined to secure funding for buttressing his community against the waves. He recently took the drastic step of closing Mont Saint-Michel to visitors briefly during a high spring tide - partly to sound the alarm.
Budget minister Coutard did tell Parliament she is “looking closely at possible sources” for extra adaptation funding after the closure gained international attention. She suggested hybrid approaches like public-private partnerships could leverage more resources to supplement stretched government coffers.

But engineer Rousseau argues that any further delays will force even costlier solutions down the road. “The longer we wait, the more complex and expensive this gets.” He estimates an ultimate price tag up to $2 billion if defending Mont Saint-Michel is pushed off for another decade as nature steadily dismantles barriers protecting it.

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