Sandy shore

Researchers at Ulster University have received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council to examine how coastal sand dunes build up along UK coastlines.


Researchers at Ulster University have received funding from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to examine how coastal sand dunes build up along UK coastlines.


Using state-of-the-art measurement equipment along with computer modelling techniques, they will investigate how airflow over coastal dunes behaves under certain unique wind directions.
 
The positioning of sand dunes at the coast makes them highly susceptible to environmental change and as a result they respond rapidly to storms, sea level rise, climatic shifts and the amount of sand supplying them. In many cases they help perform a natural defence role against storm wave attack close to low-lying inland areas. Understanding how they form and behave over time is therefore essential.


The existence of extensive aeolian (wind blown) dunes on coasts where the dominant wind direction is offshore is difficult to explain within traditional assumptions of dune formation, where winds moving onshore are believed to be solely responsible.
 
Preliminary research by Ulster, however, has shown offshore winds to be important mechanisms for the development of dunes at the rear of the beach (foredunes) and dune recovery following storm-related wave erosion.


Dr Derek Jackson from the School of Environmental Science’s Centre for Coastal and Marine Research has been appointed principal investigator on the project.


He said: ‘Understanding the formative processes of foredunes is crucial in assessing their likely future behaviour. In the context of adaptation to future climate and sea-level change, such information informs policy decisions and management choice. Many governments are currently investigating adaptation strategies.’

In the UK,  for example, Defra’s adaptation group is actively assessing strategies for responding to anticipated changes in climate and sea level. Increased storminess and sea-level rise are likely to lead to enhanced frequency of coastal dune erosion. 
 
On those coasts where the dominant winds are offshore, North Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the North Sea coast of England and Scotland, the natural recovery of such foredunes following storm impacts will be of considerable concern.


Similar conditions exist on many sandy coasts worldwide where the occurrence of storm events (wave erosion) heightens the vulnerability of the beach and adjacent dune system.


The three-year, £470k project, which will be based at Ulster, also brings together researchers from Kings College London, National University of Ireland (Galway) and a major Canadian airflow engineering company, Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin (RWDI).