Coastal research at Porthleven

A method based on the north-south atmospheric pressure gradient along the Atlantic coast of Europe could lead to enhanced forecasting of extreme wave conditions and increased preparedness within coastal communities, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Plymouth, the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, l’Université de Bordeaux and l’Institut Universitaire Européen de la Mer have developed a new climate index, termed the West Europe Pressure Anomaly (WEPA).

It is based on the atmospheric pressure difference between the Canary Islands and Ireland, and is very strongly linked to the winter wave variability along most of the west coast of Europe.

Initial tests have shown it significantly outscores existing functions, particularly an index called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which has long been known to affect climate variability in the Northern Hemisphere and wave climate arriving at the coasts of the UK, Portugal, France and Ireland.

The NAO index is computed based on the difference in atmospheric pressure between the well-known ‘Azores High’ and ‘Icelandic Low’, and more energetic wave conditions are generally associated with a large atmospheric pressure difference.

However, during the 2013/14 winter, when repeated storms battered Europe’s Atlantic coastline (and when the UK was impacted by extensive river flooding), the value for the NAO was far from exceptional, despite the fact that in terms of wave conditions this winter was the most energetic since at least 1948.

A study of the new method has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, with researchers using modelled wave and weather data to generate their findings.

Gerd Masselink, Professor of Coastal Geomorphology at the University of Plymouth, said:

“WEPA is the most relevant index to explain storm wave variability, both spatially and temporally, along the Atlantic coast of Europe. It is critical to our understanding of coastal hazards across western Europe, including in the UK. Further testing should be carried out to assess whether it is also correlated to other climate factors and consequences, such as rainfall and river flooding.”

Sea-level rise is by many seen as the major threat for our coast, but previous studies led by the University of Plymouth have shown that extreme wave conditions can induce dramatic coastal erosion that may take many years for the coast to recover; therefore, on the yearly-to-decadal time scale storms may represent a more significant coastal hazard than sea-level rise.

Being able to forecast extreme winters is a key issue for coastal management and the climate indicator reported in this study can be an extremely useful tool for making such predictions.

Dr Tim Scott, Lecturer in Ocean Exploration, added:

“The real value of climate indices such as WEPA is that if climate modellers can predict how such indices may change in the future due to climate change, we will have a means to indirectly assess the impact of climate change on storminess. Even if we can predict the value of WEPA several months ahead, this would already be of great use to coastal managers and help them with preparing for the winter.”

Coastal Marine Applied Research (CMAR)

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Coastal Marine Applied Research (CMAR) is a research-informed consultancy group focusing on coastal processes and marine physics. 

We are based in the School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth, in the South West, UK, and aim to provide a first-class data collection, analysis and modelling service to help address important issues in the coastal and marine environment. 

We strive to understand and predict the behaviour of coastal, marine and estuarine systems to support the appropriate management of resources and activities in these environments. 

CMAR specialises in: 

  • The collection, analysis and interpretation of air-, land- and sea-based coastal survey data
  • Numerical modelling of coastal processes and marine physics
  • Making in-situ measurements of hydrodynamics (waves, currents and tides) and sediment transport processes in coastal, estuarine, nearshore and shallow marine environments, and conducting advanced analysis and interpretation of these data
  • Providing expert, research-informed advice on physical issues in the coastal zone.

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.