Beaches around Devon and Cornwall are generally recovering well from erosion caused by the major storms which hit the counties in the winter of 2013 and 2014, experts have revealed.
The Plymouth Coastal Observatory (PCO) was set up in 2006, and its scientists have been regularly surveying the region’s coastline ever since.
Extra surveys were undertaken after concerns were raised over the condition of a number of beaches following the storms. This autumn the scientists returned to find out how well they have been faring and discovered that many beaches have recovered all the sand, shingle and pebbles they lost in the storms.
Of 16 beaches studied, nine had recovered by 100 per cent or more, while five others had recovered at least 90 per cent of material lost. Only Sennen in Cornwall was below 90 per cent, at 79.3 per cent of its previous level.
When sand and other material is stripped from a beach in heavy storms, much of it gathers on the seabed in shallow water just off-shore. In the following weeks and months the sediment is gradually picked up by waves and put back on the beach in a process known as deposition.
PCO Coastal Process Scientist Mark Wiggins said: “The PCO operates a series of wave buoys around the South West peninsula, and they recorded eight big storms in the winter of 2013-14.
“We’ve been monitoring 1,000 kilometres of the region’s coastline since we were set up nine years ago, and have generally observed our beaches steadily increasing in volume in that time.
“We conducted special surveys after the storms to get a true picture of their effects on the region’s beaches. What we found was that most beaches had fallen to levels similar to those we first recorded in 2007.
“Fistral Beach at Newquay had a volume of around 960,000 cubic metres when we measured it in 2013. Post-storm that fell to about 868,000m³. That means it lost the same volume as about 900 double-decker buses!
“However, our latest measurements show that by the summer of this year the beach volume had, thanks to natural processes, returned to 99.9 per cent of what it had been two years earlier.
“Of course, recovering beaches won’t look the same as they did before the storms. Dunes, for example, can take many years to form, and while material may have returned to the beaches it won’t be in the same places as previously.
“Sennen doesn’t appear to be recovering well, although it has been quite stable over the past 12 months. Because of its geography it tends to be hit by more storms than other places, and there aren’t other large beaches nearby from which sediment can be transferred.
“It’s also possible that the material lost from Sennen has been deposited a bit further off-shore, so it might take a particular combination of weather and tidal conditions for it to be returned to the beach in any great quantity.”
The PCO is part of the South West Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme which works on behalf of the area’s maritime local authorities and coastal groups, as well as the Environment Agency and Defra, and is managed by Teignbridge District Council.
Simon Humphry of Teignbridge District Council said: “The programme proved its worth when our scientists were able to estimate, based on years of highly accurate measurements, if the beaches were likely to recover on their own.
“This invaluable data was passed to the programme’s partners who had to decide what action to take after the storms. One option, for instance, would have been to import material from elsewhere in the country to replace that which had been lost, but there are obvious costs associated with that, and the new material will rarely match that which has been lost.
“Even though our data often proves invaluable, it is available free of charge to local authorities, coastal engineers, scientists, students, environmentalists and anyone else who is interested.
“Our scientists are now recommending further monitoring of the situation in those areas which are recovering less well.”
Data gathered by the Plymouth Coastal Observatory for the South West Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme is available online at www.coastalmonitoring.org/southwest.