Hurricane UK

Is climate change creating more storms?

Scientists have detected a strong link between our planet's rising temperature because of climate change and shifting weather patterns.

There is growing evidence to suggest that the warming of the atmosphere and upper ocean as a result of human-induced greenhouse gasses emissions will lead to more destructive tropical storms in the regions around the equator (hurricanes in the US and Caribbean; cyclones in Australasia; and typhoons in SE Asia). 

In the UK, we are affected by extra-tropical storms, and these are less sensitive to the ocean water temperature. However, climate change is likely to result in a shifting of the tracks (or paths) of these extra-tropical storms and this will make some parts of the UK more stormy, whereas other parts may become less affected by storms. Regardless of the changes in the storm wave climate, maximum storm levels will increase due to sea-level rise and this will led to more extensive coastal flooding.

As more evaporation leads to more moisture in the atmosphere, rainfall naturally intensifies.

A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, which means more rain. This can can lead to torrential downpours causing flooding, while rising sea levels result in increased storm surge levels.

UK storm and waves
The Atlantic storms of 2013-2014 were some of the largest on record, and we were there measuring their effect on the British coastline. Our LIDAR tower can be seen on the seawall in this image capturing the impact of this huge wave.
Coastal Modelling of Extreme Storms and Sea-Level Rise (CMESSLR) – Lloyd Russell

Will UK winter storms get worse?

The storms which have battered the UK over recent years, for example Storm Dennis and Ciara that occurred in February 2020, can be traced back to a strong front (a boundary separating air masses of different characteristics) of contrasting temperature between cold air over the north Atlantic and warmer air further south.

This strong temperature contrast across the Atlantic causes storms to form around the front, as hot and cold air circulates and mixes and tried to find a balance.

It is similar to when we add cold water into a hot bath – the cold water will form a boundary (a front) with the hot water, which must be mixed more evenly to make a comfortable balance of temperatures.

We have experienced a succession of deep Atlantic low pressure systems caused by a strong high level jet stream in the upper atmosphere. Add wind into the mix, which is also driven by strong contrasting temperatures, and this is why very wet and windy weather has been brought to parts of the UK during recent winters.

Storms in the UK are not necessarily going to get more energetic – they may or they may not, depending on where you are in the country. However, storm tracks are going to shift, but it is unclear whether this will be to the north or the south of the UK – climate models are not certain yet.

The key point is that wave climate will change and this will have an impact. Some areas will get stormier, others less so. Wave directions may also change, modifying longshore sediment transport, and this will also impact our coast.

What can be done to reduce the damage caused by storms?

England has experienced a major flood almost every year since 2007, leaving about 100,000 properties damaged, according to scientists in the Climate Coalition.

There is a need to increase the creation of more natural drainage systems if the government wants to avoid having to raise the level of sea and river defences every few years to counter the growing threat of flooding and storm surges. 

Problems are often worsened by the erosion and concreting over of natural buffers, such as soil and green spaces. Ways to increase infiltration and places to slow and store water need to increase in order to add resilience to floodwalls.

Chasing storm data at Westwood Hoe
Coastal processes research group books and reports hero
coastal processes research group consultancy

Chasing storms to protect our coastlines

Scientists at the University, led by Professor Gerd Masselink and his research team from the Coastal Processes Research Group (CPRG), specialise in field studies and numerical modelling of coastal processes.

Their aim is to be a leading contributor to the international research community seeking to understand and predict the behaviour of coastal and estuarine systems in support of appropriate management of coastal resources and activities.

One of their completed projects, 'New understanding and prediction of storm impacts on gravel beaches' (NUPSIG) was a collaboration between the University and several governmental and private partners, with the aim of helping to protect gravel coasts in the UK against storms and rising sea levels.

Professor Masselink also has undertaken a number of coastal impact research projects to evaluate the physical and human impact of storms on our coast. 

These include deploying state-of-the-art technology to assess the impact of the remnants of Hurricane Lorenzo on our coastline in October 2019, and being part of the Waves project which explores the impact of extreme storms and coastal erosion on the communities of Start Bay, South Devon.


Project highlights and research activity

Coastal overtopping forecast made available to the public

One of the greatest challenges facing coastal communities during extreme storms is to predict where, and when, coastal flooding might occur. To overcome that, University scientists have developed a more accurate way of forecasting wave overtopping hazards around the South West.

The Wave Overtopping Forecast shows the maximum predicted hazard over the 3-day forecast period. Each area is colour coded to indicate the severity of the potential hazard from green (low hazard) through to red (hazard to pedestrians, property and vehicles)
The Wave Overtopping Forecast showed the maximum predicted hazard of Storm Ciara over the 3-day forecast period

The Operational Wave and Water Level (OWWL) model has been developed by the Coastal Processes Research Group as part of the South West Partnership for Environmental and Economic Prosperity (SWEEP) project.

The profiles look at everything from the slope of the beach, whether it is comprised of sand or gravel, and whether there are any sea defences in place. 

With this information, the amount of water that is likely to overtop sea defences during a storm can be predicted up to three days ahead, creating a highly accurate picture of when and where the sea might pose a hazard to people or property.

The team behind OWWL have been working with the Environment Agency and the Met Office to refine and test the model, which is available to the general public online, and through daily Twitter and email alerts.

“Coastal flooding is normally considered to be the result of high tides and storm surge, but in the South West we have an important additional factor – wave run-up. The OWWL model brings all the factors that causes coastal flooding together, and means forecasts are more accurate even at a really small scale.”

– Professor Masselink

Find out more about the Operational Wave and Water Level model


New understanding and prediction of storm impacts on gravel beaches

Gravel barriers and beaches extend along more than 1,000km of the coastline of England and Wales and represent sustainable coastal defences that can protect low-lying back-barrier regions from flooding, and coastal cliffs from undercutting during storm events.

Coastal erosion is widespread along gravel beaches in the UK and erosion rates are expected to increase as a result of sealevel rise and possibly enhanced storminess due to climate change.

The aim of the NUPSIG project is to obtain new understanding of how gravel beaches are affected by storms, and to use this knowledge to develop coastal management tools to help protect the coast of the United Kingdom.

Find out more about the NUPSIG project

University of PlymouthCoastal Processes Research Group (CPRG)Beach Survey at Hallsands beach South DevonField study to create numerical modelling of coastal processes
Beach Survey at Hallsands beach, South Devon

Where did the sand go?

In 2013–14 some of the most energetic series of storms ever hit our coastline. 

Many beaches across the South West of England have still not fully recovered from the erosion. But where did the sand go?

Watch our animation to find out.


First on the scene to assess the impacts of Hurricane Lorenzo

As coastal UK communities braced themselves for forecasts of extreme waves and potential flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Lorenzo in 2019, our scientists reacted quickly to reach the beach and deploy state-of-the-art technology, with an aim to assess the storm’s impact on the coastline.

“It’s very interesting to assess how this type of storm – which could potentially be more frequent in future – will impact on our coasts.”

– Professor Masselink

Find out more about assessing the impacts of Hurricane Lorenzo

CPRG researchers setting up wave-measuring equipment
Setting up measurement equipment ahead of the study

Living with the threat of extreme storms

The impact of extreme storms and coastal erosion on the communities of Start Bay, in South Devon, has been brutally clear over recent years.

As the beaches have retreated, damage has been caused to the main road through the region – and its coastal defences. The Waves project aims to give a voice to those local communities and landscapes affected.

“This project adds a certain human element to the science, recognising that it is not just land and roads that risk being lost to the sea but people’s homes and livelihoods.”

 – Professor Masselink

Find out more about the Waves project

The beach at Torcross, Devon, in March 2015
The beach at Torcross, Devon

Find out more about our research at Plymouth

Coastal Processes Research Group

The Coastal Processes Research Group is an internationally recognised group of researchers, specialising in field studies of coastal processes and seeking to understand and predict the behaviour of coastal and estuarine systems. Research topics include:

  • beach morphodynamics and nearshore sediment transport
  • coastal erosion and storm impacts
  • video monitoring of coastal systems
  • coastal process modelling
  • estuarine processes and evolution.

Find out more about the Coastal Processes Research Group

Coastal Processes Research Group Perranporth beach

Sustainable Earth Institute 

The Sustainable Earth Institute is about promoting a new way of thinking about the future of our world.

We bring researchers together with businesses, community groups and individuals to develop cutting-edge research and innovative approaches that build resilience to global challenges. 

We link diverse research areas across the University including science, engineering, arts, humanities, health and business.

Find out more about the institute

Baobab tree in Madagascar

Marine degree courses, research and education – in Britain's Ocean City

Students consistently choose Marine at Plymouth over other locations for courses related to the sea. Plymouth boasts one of the most prestigious clusters of marine teaching, research and educational organisations in Europe.

Top 10 University for Geology, Environmental, Earth and Marine Sciences in the UK
– Times Higher Young University rankings 2019

Find out about studying marine at Plymouth

SRRDG explore the programme Plymouth Hoe