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.

Beaches left decimated by the severe winter of 2013/14 have still not recovered almost three years later, according to new research led by the University of Plymouth.

The study, published in Marine Geology, showed around eight weeks of storms left many beaches along the UK’s Atlantic coastline in their most eroded state since records began.

Conditions since have in many cases done little to replenish exposed areas, with parts of Devon and Cornwall having only recovered around half of the sand lost during that time.

For the research, scientists examined the response at 38 natural beaches in the south west of England, ranging from semi-sheltered reflective gravel barriers to ultra-dissipative exposed sand beaches with dunes.

It showed that some beaches experienced sediment losses of up to 200 m3 for every 1m strip of beach, providing the potential to dramatically change the equilibrium state of beaches along the western side of the continent.

The current study includes data gathered up to the middle of 2015, but researchers have continued assessing the beaches at Slapton Sands in Devon and Perranporth in North Cornwall to examine whether the situation is improving.

Dr Tim Scott, who led the study alongside colleagues in the University’s Coastal Processes Research Group, said:

“As of October 2016, Perranporth had only recovered about half of the sand lost in 2013/14, while Slapton Sands has seen a marked and lasting shift of sand from the western end of the beach to the east. But it appears the impact of the storms that winter were so extreme at Slapton Sands, with large waves consistently from the South West, it would take a series of significant easterly wave events of similar impact to replenish what was lost. Since 2013/14, wave conditions have remained southwesterly-dominated and that is why we are seeing the current, and dramatic, effects.”

Previous research led by the University – published in March 2016 – showed the 2013/14 storms were the most energetic to hit Europe’s Atlantic coastline since records began in 1948. Regardless of this, it had been expected that most of the sand lost as a result of those storms would have been replenished.

However, data collected as part of the current study and more recent analysis, has shown that while there has been some recovery in the summer months since 2013/14 these have largely been wiped out in the following winters.

This has created a situation where high water shorelines are further landward at sites such as Perranporth, while communities such as Torcross – at the western tip of Slapton Sands – are left more vulnerable as the sediment protecting the sea wall remained depleted.

Dr Scott added:

“Our ongoing research has shown that recovery after a severe weather event can take many years, but we are also seeing that those effects are intrinsically linked to long-term climate cycles. With the advance of climate change, it is likely we will experience more extreme and energetic storms in the future, and developing a greater understanding of coastal recovery – and any means by which we can influence it – will be essential.”

The full study – The extreme 2013/2014 winter storms: Beach recovery along the southwest coast of England by Scott, Masselink, O’Hare, Saulter, Poate, Russell, Davidson and Conley – is published in Marine Geology, doi: 10.1016/j.margeo.2016.10.011.

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.
The group operates a research-informed consultancy Coastal Marine Applied Research.
Coastal Processes Research Group Perranporth beach

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The activity highlighted here is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more.

NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.