Podcast: The storms that hit southwest England

Men with umbrellas

13 May 2014 by Richard Hollingham

This week in the Planet Earth podcast, Gerd Masselink and Paul Russell of Plymouth University talk about the work they're doing to assess the impacts of some of the worst winter storms on record on the communities and coastlines of southwest England.

To assist those who find text-based content more accessible than audio, a transcript of this recording is available below.

Richard Hollingham: I'm Richard Hollingham and this time in the Planet Earth podcast, what lessons can be learnt for the future from the devastating storms that hit the south west coast of England this winter. I'm on the beach at Torcross which mid-way along the south Devon coast between Torquay and Plymouth and it's a vast stretch of gravelly beach with rocky headlands at each end, a pretty calm sea as you can probably hear in the background and then behind me the road and the village of Torcross which only metres really from the waves.

I'm here to meet a team from Plymouth University assessing the impacts of the year's winter storms on the coast and the people who live there - storms that flooded homes, businesses and severed the main railway line. Let's hear first from some local people about what it was like.

Male Voice: The sea came over the wall and the shingle just broke all the glass and knocked that doorway out and went straight in through the house, like, you know.

Male Voice 2: It's the worst I have ever seen it. I have never seen this beach this low.

Gail Stubbs: I'm Gail Stubbs and I was born in the village. My family has been running the Start Bay Inn for 37 years.

Richard Hollingham: What were the storms like then?

Gail Stubbs: Really frightening. We had water coming into the pub, a long night of sweeping water through our kitchen. It was only in the morning really that I realised how lightly we had got off when I saw all our neighbours' damage, all the windows had smashed.

Richard Hollingham: The sea though is quite a way away and quite a bit down. I mean I would say we're at least, what, five, maybe even ten metres above the waves. Even at high tide you're quite a long way away from the water.

Gail Stubbs: The waves were crashing over the houses. It was a really, really high sea, really big waves.

Richard Hollingham: I'm joined on the beach here by Gerd Masselink who is leading this study and Paul Russell. Now, Gerd, people will be familiar with the video, the pictures, particularly of Dawlish where you had the railway lines hanging, suspended, above the waves. What else happened along the coast here?

Gerd Masselink: Well different things happened along different stretches of coastline. I mean the winter of this year has been extremely stormy with a lighter number of storms all coming from different types of directions and coinciding with different tidal levels. So some storms would have affected the south coast a lot, like the one that severed the Dawlish railway line but other storms would have affected the north coast of Cornwall a lot. But what we've seen is gravel beaches being overtopped, towns being flooded, we've seen dunes being cliffed and eroded by big waves and we've seen enhanced cliff erosion because of the battering of the cliffs by the waves. So we've seen a range of different impacts depending on the type of coastal environment and the type of storm and the coastal geographical setting of that location.

Richard Hollingham: Paul, it wasn't really one perfect storm, if you like, it was multiple storms as Gerd mentioned.

Paul Russell: Absolutely. So there were a sequence of four, five extreme storms that came between the start of January and the middle of February. Those storms caused massive erosion along the coast and one of the reasons we're down here today is to look at the change in the beach levels because that erosion lowers the beach levels and it makes the coast more vulnerable to further wave attack.

Richard Hollingham: And, Gerd, you can see just how vulnerable this place is. We are only a few metres from the waves and there is a main road behind us and the village with the shops, the businesses, the houses, again not very far from the water.

Gerd Masselink: Absolutely. The main road of Torcross is literally metres away from the beach, from the waves and you are exactly right, the big storm that happened in early February lowered the beach in front of Torcross by five to six metres. So it really, really brought home the message that these people are living on the edge and highly vulnerable to another of those events.

Richard Hollingham: Now, Paul, you are surveying all these beaches and you have the survey equipment in your hand which is best described as a broomstick with a plate on top and then an instrument half way along which looks a bit like a GPS receiver, that sort of thing, bolted to the middle.

Paul Russell: It's a GPS survey of the beach. So we're doing it to see the height of the beach, the GPS gives you a point in both time and space and then you are measuring the height of that point and we do that at repeated intervals, approximately monthly, all the way around the coast of the south west and therefore we can see whether the beach is eroding in response to the storms and also how they recover over the coming months and even years.

Richard Hollingham: So you are taking really these transects of the beach at particular points and you are doing that again and again, feeding it into some sort of computer programme and getting a profile of how it is changing?

Paul Russell: Yes, that's exactly right. So we can work out the volumes and changes of both erosion and accretion.

Richard Hollingham: And the reason to do this, Gerd, is to look at the impact of what's happening both on the landscape but also on the communities that live here?

Gerd Masselink: Yes, obviously the coastal communities are affected by beach erosion and it's all nice to only look at the physical environment and quantify the impact in terms of losses of sand and gravel and cliff erosion, but the real impacts are obviously felt by the coastal communities.

One of the questions that we are asking or addressing is how sustainable are some of these coastal communities. If we are measuring at certain sites that villages are right on the edge of the shoreline and are so vulnerable to these extreme storm events, what's going to happen to these communities in the next ten, 20, 30, 40 years. So it is about vulnerability and also resilience, the ability of those coastal communities to bounce back from events like this that we are also looking at. So it's not only looking at natural processes but it is also looking at the human impacts.

Richard Hollingham: So what happened here?

Gerd Masselink: The beach profile has changed a lot and lost a lot of metres of sediment, but probably most importantly on a regional scale the road that leads behind this barrier got overtopped and over washed by waves and about half a metre of gravel was deposited on top of the road. So, obviously, the road was closed, had to be cleared, it is clear now but again it shows how vulnerable this particularly community is that depends on this road to those sorts of events.

Richard Hollingham: Paul, this was described or some of these storms were described as 'once every 50 year' type of events, but these seem to be happening more frequently.

Paul Russell: We did some analysis by looking at the wave buoy records and there is no doubt that this was biggest winter for waves in the south west for the last 60 years, so since records began, and that makes you think a once in a lifetime event. But if you look forward I think we all think that these sorts of events are going to become more common with climate change, sea level rise and therefore these communities have got to learn to adapt and live with a stormier environment in the future.

Richard Hollingham: So you've got these profiles and you are building up these profiles and you've been studying these for quite a few years but you've got particular work this year. How do you use that information?

Paul Russell: Well the really interesting thing about these huge storms is have they had a long term, a permanent effect on the coast. So, normally in an embayment like this the sand might shuffle from end to the other and back again or offshore and back again and therefore long term there is not much permanent change, but those storms were so big that they've taken some sediment so far out and outside the embayment and maybe out of that coastal cell and off down the coast and it might not come back. So this is why it is important to monitor long-term to see where it recovers and where it doesn't recover.

Richard Hollingham: So permanently altering the coastline, one event or one winter can permanently alter the coastline and presumably make it more vulnerable.

Paul Russell: Yeah, absolutely. So this extreme sequence of storms... we know that some areas have been permanently altered because they have altered the hard rock geology but there will be other areas where the beaches take years, not just one year to recover their sediment.

Richard Hollingham: Gerd, does this ultimately benefit the people who live here, the communities that depend on this area?

Gerd Masselink: I would like to think so. I think you have to understand coastal change and coastal dynamics in order to be able to manage and plan for it, and what we're looking at in this project is we're looking at 50 different sites along the north and south coast of Devon and Cornwall and every location has almost like a different story to tell. So the more we learn about the specific causes of coastal erosion by certain storms at certain locations, the more those local communities will benefit from that knowledge. Because if you don't know, if you don't understand the changes that you are faced with how can you plan and how can you manage those changes.

Richard Hollingham: Ultimately, though, people are going to have to make some tough choices about whether they choose to live in somewhere like this or whether you build communities in places like that.

Gerd Masselink: Absolutely, but those decisions will have to be based on sound knowledge of what is happening at the moment, and if you don't know what's going on you cannot make those sound decisions.

Richard Hollingham: Does that mean we have to rethink how we manage the coastline, that some of it actually is just going to disappear?

Gerd Masselink: Yeah, I think at the moment shoreline management plans have a planning horizon and it is either 20 years, 50 year or 100 years and a lot of the 100 year planning recommendations are for those vulnerable sites that management realignment might be the long-term future, might be the more economically sustainable future for those communities.

Richard Hollingham: Paul, we talked at the beginning this about the perfect storm, but actually it wasn't that bad, it was just because there were lots of storms rather than one particular one. So what you are saying is this could actually have been worse?

Paul Russell: Well what our initial analysis shows, and we've got the measurements to show the show the waves, the eight metre waves that were generated by each of these storms, they're huge waves, but none of these storms did they coincide with the spring high tide, the peak of the waves, the peak of the spring high tide, the peak of the strength of the onshore wind and the peak of the surge. If those four things combine then you've got a storm and an impact way worst than any of the storms. So I would like to say the perfect storm is still out there and we should all think that when we look at coastal communities and how they plan for the future.

Richard Hollingham: Paul Russell and Gerd Masselink from Plymouth University, thank you both and you can see pictures of our recording here on our Facebook page but there is also an enhanced podcast with pictures at Planet Earth online. And that's the Planet Earth podcast from the Natural Environment Research Council. I'm Richard Hollingham from Torcross in South Devon. Thanks for listening.