Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chalk fell 500ft to the beach on Sunday morning, in what is thought to have been the biggest sudden loss of coastline in Britain in living memory.
Bigger waves than ever, and unusually heavy rain which seeped into the chalk and then froze, are thought to be the cause, and both can be blamed on climate change, the agency said. It warned that the sea defences of the south coast, which for generations have stood up to the worst storms that winter can offer, are starting to appear increasingly fragile. The extreme weather which global warming is predicted to bring could increase the threat.
Beachy Head's sheer cliffswest of Eastbourne are famed both as a beauty spot and a place where large numbers of people commit suicide - more people jumped from the cliffs last year than from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. They have not had a severe erosion problem in recent years but now a 50ft-deep, 200-yard long chunk of cliff edge has disappeared, dumping so much chalk and rock onto the beach below that the Beachy Head lighthouse, normally standing about 75 yards off shore, had temporarily been rejoined to the land.
No one is known to have been hurt in the fall, which happened early on Sunday morning and was witnessed from the sea by the startled crew of the Eastbourne inshore lifeboat.
"It is probably the largest cliff fall or sudden disappearance of a piece of coast in Britain in recent years," said Ray Kemp of the Environment Agency.
It could probably be blamed on global warming, and the increase in extreme weather events that was a main prediction of climate change, he said.
"The waves have been walloping home along the channel coastline much harder than they used to, and the bottom of the cliff is being battered with the vibrations much harder than it ever was," he said. "This is because the sea's wave height has increased by at least 10 per cent in the last ten years - something is happening in the Atlantic.
"We're getting more and more extreme weather as is predicted with global warning. We have had terrible storms on the south coast for all the 12 days of Christmas.
"We have had unusually heavy rain for the last few months which seeps into the cliffs and then when we get a cold night it freezes and cracks the chalk. But before that we had months of drought.
"Our sea defences on the south coast, which have stood the test of time, are increasingly fragile, and looking to be unable to support the defence they once supported. This is happening very rapidly."
The landslide will be seen as a further warning of the erosion hitting England's southern and eastern coasts, with some predictions estimating sea levels to rise by up to 20 inches by 2050.Reuse content