Researchers set out to explore storm surge effects on sand dunes

A new research project starts this week to find out how quickly sand dunes along the east coast of England recover from the erosion caused by massive storm surges like the one that struck the UK coastline on 5 December 2013.

Professor Joanna Bullard and colleagues in Loughborough University’s Department of Geography and School of Civil and Building Engineering hope the year-long, NERC-funded project will inform coastal management so planners can make informed decisions about coastal defences. This will help to ensure people and infrastructure are protected when a storm surge strikes next.

Many scientists predict these coastal storm surges will become both more frequent and more severe. Not just that, but climate change scenarios suggest that sea level will rise at a rate of 4mm a year, rising to over 12mm a year after 2055. This means making the right coastal management decisions will become increasingly important.

Professor Bullard and colleagues will take advantage of the record-breaking 5 December 2013 storm surge to gather data from three sites along the UK's Lincolnshire coast. The researchers visited the sites in question to collect data immediately after the storm and then again two weeks later. They'll use the data gathered to test the models coastal planners currently use.

The 2013 storm surge seriously eroded sand dunes and beaches along England's North Sea coast. But because the dunes are advancing towards the sea in these areas, they're seen as less vulnerable than retreating coastlines. This means they're rarely investigated and so aren't very well-understood. Professor Bullard and her colleagues hope to plug this gap in our knowledge.

She said: "Dunes play a crucial role in coastal defence, forming a barrier to inland flooding and dissipating storm energy so reducing risk to lives and damage to infrastructure. But we know very little about how resilient these dunes are, nor how quickly they recover after being eroded by storm surges."

The researchers will measure the size and shape of sand dunes along the Lincolnshire coastline every two weeks over the course of a year to see how they change following the 5 December storm surge. The sites are all within two kilometres of each other. They'll also use data on wind speed and direction to understand which winds contribute the most to dune-building.

Professor Duncan Wingham, chief executive of NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), said: "Understanding how quickly, and under what conditions, coastal dunes can recover their shape and ecological and defence functions following erosion by a storm event is vital information that coastal planners need as the climate changes. For this reason, we're delighted to be funding this important research."

The Loughborough research team includes Professor Bullard, Professor Jim Chandler and Dr Jonathan Millett.

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