Are West European beaches under a global warming siege?

Study finds 2013-2014 winter was stormiest since 1940s

As global warming drives rising sea levels and more intense storms, some communities are looking to augment their beaches with "imported" sand. like here on Manasota Key in Englewood, Florida.
As global warming drives rising sea levels and more intense storms, some communities are looking to augment their beaches with “imported” sand. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Fierce Atlantic storms that surged toward Europe’s western coastlines during the winter of 2013-2014 were the strongest in nearly 70 years — and such storms may become more frequent and even more powerful due to global warming.

The trend toward more storminess has implications for land-use planners and emergency management agencies in Europe, with the potential to dramatically change the equilibrium state of beaches, including permanent changes in beach gradient, coastal alignment and nearshore bar position.

“The extreme winter of 2013-2014 is in line with historical trends in wave conditions and is also predicted to increasingly occur due to climate change according to some of the climate models,” said Tim Scott, a lecturer in ocean exploration at Plymouth University and a co-author of the study. “Whether due to more intense and … or more frequent storms, it should undoubtedly be considered in future coastal and sea defense planning along the Atlantic coast of Europe.”

The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, compared modeled and measured data from sites across Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Portugal, Spain and Morocco. Along exposed shorelines in the UK and France, there was been extensive beach and dune erosion due to offshore sediment transport. In some areas, sediment losses reached up to 200 cubic metersfor every 1-meter strip of beach. At some of the other sites, the balance between different alongshore sediment transport contributions was disrupted, causing changes in coastal alignment, referred to as beach rotation.

“We have previously conducted research showing the devastating effects caused to the UK by the stormy winter of 2013-2014,” said Gerd Masselink, professor of coastal geomorphology at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom and the study’s lead author. “But the damage caused to coastal communities there was replicated, and in some cases exceeded, across western France. All but one of the sites assessed for this study reached their most depleted state at the end of the 2014 winter, and it will take many years for them to fully recover.”

The results showed that extreme wave conditions occurred up to five times more frequently in 2013/14, and winter wave heights were up to 40 percent higher, than on average.

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