Coastal erosion is a huge problem in Great Britain and internationally. In Britain, coastal protection work costs central Government and local authorities millions of pounds each year -- and the cost is rising.
With current measuring methods, experts are generally only able to provide annual estimates as to how much the coast is eroding.
But now, scientists from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne are making the most accurate measurements ever of the rapidly receding British coastline, using satellites, a microlight aircraft and advanced computer technology.
Their methods have the potential to be applied to the rest of the British coastline and to beaches around the world.
The team of researchers from the university's Department of Geomatics on Monday conducted a UK pilot project on the North Yorkshire coastline at Filey Bay, which is estimated to be eroding by 25cm -- almost one foot -- each year.
(Editor's Note: Geomatics is originally a Canadian word meaning the sciences and technologies involved in handling geographical data about the earth in digital form. For more information see this URL.)
Researchers Dr. Jon Mills and Simon Buckley, a PhD student, are using new technology to create a highly accurate 3D computer model which will illustrate the pattern of erosion and detail when it is most likely to occur and by how much.
Three types of readings are taken to obtain data to feed into the 3D model. Small changes to the coastline are recorded each month by satellite technology provided by the European Space Agency, whereas more detailed results are gained "in the field" by global positioning system (GPS) equipment and by taking digital aerial photographs from a microlight aircraft.
The researchers are taking the readings over two years and will visit the 8-mile stretch of coast at Filey three times.
The project, carried out in collaboration with Scarborough Borough Council, started after Simon, who hails from Burniston, near Scarborough, spent a university summer vacation working for the council department in charge of coastal management.
Scarborough Borough Council manages approximately 50 miles of North Yorkshire coastline, which includes the area where cliff instability caused the Holbeck Hall Hotel to slip into the sea in June 1993.
More accurate figures on erosion could help local authorities decide when and where limited and costly resources for coastal management should be directed.
Dr. Mills, a lecturer in the Department of Geomatics, said, "Coastal change is a huge problem nationally -- places like Beachy Head, in East Sussex, and Holderness, East Yorkshire, are suffering similar problems to those found in Filey.
"In some cases the coastal stretches governed by a single authority will be large and monitoring methods relatively crude, making the provision of an up-to-date database of coastal change time-consuming and inefficient.
"In Scarborough Borough this is not the case as the Council has spent a great deal of time and money in obtaining the very best data on which to base future coastal defense management. However, Filey is an ideal research site to test this new high-tech approach which could prove valuable for all authorities in the future.
"By integrating a number of geomatics techniques, we aim to provide a more accurate and effective solution to the monitoring of coastal areas. We chose Filey Bay as a test site for this work due to the wide variety of coastal processes occurring."
Erosion at Filey Bay is due to both the sea and the rain making a "two-pronged attack" on the cliffs, which are made of boulder clay, a mixture of sand, stones, and soil which becomes soft when wet. The cliffs sometimes break off in chunks, or landslides can cause the clay to slump onto the beaches.
Simon said, "It is unlikely that a coastline erodes at a uniform amount each year, or each month. It is more likely that much of the erosion occurs during the winter, when the sea pounds against the base of the cliffs, and when there is more rain, which causes the cliffs to soften.
"Until recently there has been limited means of measuring the exact pattern of erosion, but our methods should be able to establish more accurately the trends at certain locations."
A spokesman for Scarborough Borough Council said, "We are very pleased to collaborate with Newcastle University in this research. Scarborough Borough Council is at the forefront of coast protection work and our involvement in projects like this demonstrates the partnership approach necessary to deliver sustainable coastal management."
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has provided funding for the project. A full set of results should be available in late 2003.
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