Coastal Processes

Coastal environments, at the intersection of land and marine processes, constitute some of the earth’s more dynamic landscapes and hence some of the most difficult to model. Beach-dune systems are very diverse in shape and size, and are a fundamental component of coastal zones.

In the context of global warming and sea-rise there is increasing research on coastal dunes because of recognition of the protective buffer they offer against coastal erosion and flooding. Studies of the effect of global warming predict that the sea level could rise as much as one meter in the next century with direct physical effects such as coastal erosion and shoreline inundation, which will greatly amplify risks to coastal populations. Coastal dunes may migrate inland as a consequence of sediment erosion and transfer landward, maintaining their overall volume during periods of sea level rise, and hence their preservation could result in several advantages with respect to future climate changes.

Dune and beach systems are also subject to economic (e.g., mining) and recreational (e.g., tourism) activities and are often under of intense pressure, especially in heavily populated areas such as some sections of the UK’s shoreline. Understanding the factors controlling beach-dune systems is thus essential to achieve an appropriate balance between use and protection of sandy coastlines worldwide.

The knowledge of how waves, winds and littoral currents act to erode, transport, and deposit sediment along the coast is still sketchier in many ways, which limits our ability to predict the evolution of coastal environments under different climate change scenarios. In collaboration with other national and international researchers, Irene Delgado-Fernandez is using ‘cutting-edge’ techniques such as remote sensing and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) tools to measure and model the processes shaping sandy coastlines.

Irene has looked at coastal processes, human impacts, and beach-dune systems in Spain, Australia, Canada, and Northern Ireland, and she is currently investigating the largest dune field in England: the Sefton Coast dunes, northwest England. Working in collaboration with Natural England, and the Universities of Guelph (Canada), British Columbia (Canada) and Ulster (Northern Ireland), a monitoring station consisting of an array of digital cameras and sensors to measure environmental variables is to be deployed at a location along the Sefton Coast.

This pioneer program in the UK is currently providing us with detailed information on wind and transport dynamics, shoreline position, vegetation cover, surficial moisture content, and many other factors over months. Irene’s goal is to combine past and current research in an attempt to developing models that will help addressing management issues such as sea level rise and the impact of climate change.