UK scientists funded by NERC have just started a 12-month project to find out how the recent barrage of devastating winter storms affected the communities and coastlines of southwest England.
The ultimate aim is to help ensure people are properly informed about and prepared for such events, as well as to inform long-term coastal management.
The researchers will also assess how vulnerable these coastlines are to future extreme Atlantic storms, which are expected to become more frequent.
From early December 2013 to February 2014, the southwest coast of England was battered by an unprecedented run of major winter storms. Winter storm Hercules, which struck the coastline on 6 January 2014 and brought 8-metre waves to Land's End and parts of Dorset was a 1 in 5 year to 1 in 10 year weather event. But the storm that hit the coastline on 5 February 2014 was probably the most damaging to strike Devon and Cornwall for 50 years.
Analysis of wave data suggests that the storms were the most energetic to affect the southwest coast since 1950. Many changes to the coastal landscape are likely to be permanent, and damage to infrastructure will take months and tens of millions of pounds to repair.
Professor Gerd Masselink of Plymouth University and colleagues will assess how the storms have affected the coast and the communities that live there. The researchers hope the results of this project will help develop adaptation strategies that might be implemented before future storms.
"We want to get an insight into how the coastline responded to these storms and how coastal communities were affected. One of our main goals is to evaluate vulnerability to similar events and get people thinking about the future by exploring ideas about coastal adaptation strategies," said Masselink.
During the project, they will measure how the storms affected beaches, cliffs and sand dunes at more than 25 sites around the southwest, including popular summer holiday destinations such as Porthleven, Bude and Westward Ho! They will also assess changes to the underwater landscape at two sites on the north and south Cornish coasts, and use a wave model developed by the Met Office to test out different wave climate scenarios.
The work will feed into a GoogleEarth-based Atlantic storm coastal impact map to help illustrate the vulnerability of the southwest to Atlantic storms. This map will be useful for coastal councils and general audiences such as A-level geography students.
Professor Duncan Wingham, chief executive of NERC, said, "The storms that hit the southwest this past winter were some of the worst on record. And with recent simulations suggesting this coastline may become a region of intensified storm activity in future, it's fitting that NERC is funding this research."
The £50,000 project started on 1 March 2014 and will run for one year. Masselink will work with Professor Paul Russell, Dr Mark Davidson, Dr Daniel Conley and Dr Stephen Fletcher, also from Plymouth University, the Plymouth Coastal Observatory and the Met Office.