International study will predict future shape of Dutch coastline

Underwater measuring platform
...in terms of the Netherlands, the coastline represents the country’s main defence against flooding. If it is breached, most of the country will be flooded as it is below sea level. Flooding on this scale would affect everything; not only Dutch citizens but the environment as well.
Dr Alex Souza
Researchers from Delft University of Technolog (TU Delft), the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and the University of Washingto (UW) are engaged in a new project to predict the future shape of the Dutch coastline. The international team of scientists will use underwater platforms to forecast how the coastline of the Netherlands is likely to be affected by changing climate conditions.

The STRAtification Impacts on Nearshore Sediment (STRAINS) experiment will form part of the Dutch Nearshore Monitoring and Modelling (NEMO) project, which aims to predict how the coastline will change during the coming decades. Participating scientists will investigate how the River Rhine plume – a buoyant mass of freshwater at the Rhine’s mouth that has formed due to its coming into contact with denser seawater – affects sediment transport along the Dutch coastline.

The findings of the project will help to inform coastal management strategies designed to deal with hazards that could put surrounding natural and built environments at risk. Climate change is expected to exacerbate such hazards over the coming years, and a better understanding of problems that are likely to arise will help authorities to protect the Netherlands against the threat of widespread flooding.

To find out more about the STRAINS experiment, I spoke to Dr Alex Souza, a participating NOC scientist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool…

Could you begin by outlining the main factors that can alter the shape of a coastline?
The main influence on the shape of a coastline is coastal erosion brought about by waves and storms. However, sediment transport facilitated by wave currents is also an important factor. This process is constantly eroding our coastlines.

What role will the NOC be playing in the STRAINS experiment?
Essentially, sediment moves in two ways. When it moves slowly near to the bed, we call it bottom transfer. When it makes its way into the water column, we call it suspended transport. The NOC will be leading the section of the experiment concerned with suspended transport, but we will also be collaborating on research into bottom transfer.

We are providing numerous instruments that will be used to make the necessary measurements. We will advise our colleagues on how to deploy these tools and we will also work on the analysis and interpretation of the processes that are occurring at the River Rhine plume.

Could you tell me more about the tools that you will be using to measure these processes?
The experiment will make use of three large underwater platforms, two of which will be provided by the NOC. We will also be providing instruments for use within the moorings, and these are designed to measure how the water column behaves. One of our hypotheses is that freshwater coming in from the Rhine is affecting sediment transport along the Dutch coast. The only way to test this hypothesis is to measure the freshwater that is entering the region.

Is this why the River Rhine plume is of such interest when it comes to sediment transport?
A combination of factors makes this location interesting. Firstly, the Rhine is one of Europe’s major rivers. It flows through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands before meeting the North Sea. Moreover, it hosts the major port in Western Europe: the port of Rotterdam. This port has recently been modified and expanded, so in addition to the impact of freshwater, we would like to see how these changes are likely to affect the coastline in the future.

The Dutch government is understandably concerned about the protection of its coastline, because the Netherlands is below sea level. Zandmotor, or the Sand Motor, is a large engineering project that has been designed to aid coastal protection. Basically, a large quantity of sand is introduced at an appropriate location in the hope that it will protect the coast as it is transported northwards. We would like to see what is actually happening to this sand.

As I understand, one of the main aims of the STRAINS experiment is to predict how the Dutch coastline is likely to alter in the future. How accurate do you expect this forecast to be?
We would like to enhance our understanding of how sediment behaves and then try to integrate this newly acquired knowledge within our computer models. Models allow us to change variables such as sea level and storm strength in order to estimate coastal impact. Our predictions will be as accurate as our models.

What sort of impacts are you talking about?
Well, in terms of the Netherlands, the coastline represents the country’s main defence against flooding. If it is breached, most of the country will be flooded as it is below sea level. Flooding on this scale would affect everything; not only Dutch citizens but the environment as well.

So changes to the coastline have the potential to result in far-reaching consequences…
Absolutely. Such changes could significantly impact environmental and economic security.

How might the results of this project be used to inform coastal management strategies? What sorts of information are likely to prove useful in this respect?
One of the advantages of the STRAINS experiment is that it encourages participants to build strong links with those involved in the NEMO project as a whole. For example, we have received a lot of client funding from the Port of Rotterdam Authority and other such bodies. We will use our findings to produce reports on how the sediment is moving and what effects freshwater is having on the area. This will enable authorities to manage coastal defences accordingly, and it will provide valuable information for those managing the Sand Motor initiative.

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It is interesting that Dr Souza says that erosion is the main shaper of future coastline and that this is caused by waves and storms. While those most certainly have a great impact, he only alludes to what may be the most primarily cause of this erosion: the Port of Rotterdam and similar facilities with artificial, deeply dredged channels. As proven in the US Corps of Engineers Cape Canaveral, Florida, studies showed that even relatively shallow (by today's standards) channels can cause erosion 100km or more from the site of the channel (though the Corps was reluctant to admit this as its projects are now the major cause of coastal erosion in the US).

It is to be remembered that these artificial canyons often extend 10s of kilometres seaward until the natural seabed depth is achieved. Unless we are ready to admit to ourselves that the real causes of the loss of our coastal lands and the resources these sustain are directly related to man-made engineering projects (including traditionally engineered shore "protection" constructions and the heavily sold beach "nourishment" programs), we are going to continue to lose these.

We do have sustainable and environmentally sound alternatives to mitigate this man-made environmental crisis. Until our officials and our academic leadership recognize both the true causes and can overcome current business profiting from not doing this, we can only expect more "studies" with little progress.

Jerry Berne - United States
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