Now a leading academic is heading a fight against the clock to save our beaches from erosion
They are the jewel in our tourist crown. But according to Ireland’s leading researcher on coastal erosion, unless action is taken soon, beaches around our dramatic coastline will be tarnished for decades to come.
Professor Derek Jackson warns we are lagging years behind other countries in taking steps to protecting our coast.
Almost three decades of research around the world, which bizarrely led to involvement in a mission to search for life on Mars, has resulted in Professor Jackson from Ulster University landing a seat at the top table of Irish academics.
Admitted to the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), Ireland’s most prestigious academic body, he is one of only 27 members elected this year.
“Personally it’s a huge accolade to get your work recognised at this level but it also helps showcase some of the excellent geoscience being undertaken at Ulster University,” he said.
Derek Jackson exudes enthusiasm as Professor of Coastal Geomorphology in the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences on the university’s Coleraine campus.
And while involvement with the European Space Agency’s mission to Mars in 2022 has caught worldwide attention, he is hoping authorities closer to home will now start to make serious inroads in protecting beaches before it is too late.
His team is conducting regular surveys of Co Down’s Newcastle to Dundrum (Murlough Bay) beach system to find out how and why our coastline changes.
The work is part of the €6.4m European environment project MarPAMM (Marine Protected Area Management and Monitoring), which will help develop tools and plans to protect vulnerable marine habitats and species in the waters between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Murlough Bay beach study explores how climate-related processes, including sea-level rises and storms, may alter the physical environment that supports protected species and habitats on our coasts.
Overdevelopment and erosion along the Ards Peninsula, from Bangor along the coast to Portaferry, has also caused beaches to shrink over time.
Map evidence shows the outer Ards peninsula has undergone a “coastal squeeze” — the distance between the high water mark and the low water mark has reduced over the last century, primarily because you have nowhere for the coast to flex in and out. Beaches like those at Millisle and Ballywalter have been affected.
But Northern Ireland is still lagging well behind the rest of the UK in terms of how coasts are managed, according to Professor Jackson.
“A lot of that is down to better, more informed planning to be frank,” he said. “In Northern Ireland, infrastructure placed within a naturally dynamic and moving coastal system has left us with a legacy issue where we are forced to defend properties or structures from coastal storms that probably shouldn’t have been built.
“A general lack of environmental data/knowledge of physical processes at the coast is also a serious, fundamental problem for those trying to manage it.
“We’re seeing larger, more frequent storms as a direct result of human activities accelerating changes to our climate. Unfortunately, we’re far behind other nations in how we plan to manage these accelerated changes on our coasts.
“We don’t have the scientific schemes in place to properly monitor what’s happening. As with Covid-19, we need to follow the data and have a scientific plan in place for our coasts.
“But that requires regular data gathering over sufficient time periods, both on land and nearshore. England and Wales have established coastal observatories along their entire coastlines, a system of regular environmental monitoring programmes creating long term data sets which can be analysed and acted upon to advise in the management of the coast.
“Embarrassingly, Northern Ireland (and the Republic) are at least 15-20 years behind, which is concerning as our coastline is our one of our best assets in attracting investment from tourism.”
There is cause for optimism though.
“Recent efforts by DAERA in commissioning a new 3D airborne coastline mapping project is a significant first step as it will provide an up-to-date assessment of the physical coastal (and marine) environments in Northern Ireland and will act as a great base to build from,” he explained.
“But we still need that coastal observatory to help establish and maintain regular gathering of environmental data.
“I have been fortunate to have travelled all around the world, and by comparison we have some of the most beautiful coastlines right here on our doorstep, but we want to continue to be in that position in decades to come.”
Professor Jackson said the last thing Northern Ireland needs it to is build more unnecessary sea defences to protect inappropriate and ill-informed planning decisions.
“Through a lack of understanding rock armouring our coastline has been allowed where it did not need defending by hard engineering,” he said.
“In many instances, waves reflect off these types of structures to strip away the beach sand, resulting in a longer term impact of beach erosion.
“It’s a fool’s paradise to over-defend by engineering when nature has its own way of adjusting, just on a little longer timescale,” he said.
“Planning needs to be better informed by the science and by those who understand how natural coastal systems behave over time. Only then will decisions on planned developments at the coast be on safer ground.”
Professor Jackson now feels that the body of knowledge established at Ulster University puts it in an important position to advise future efforts to manage coastlines.
“Adequate government funding is still required if this is to be addressed seriously. Only then, will we be in a better position to manage our coastal resources properly. Climate change impacts have hugely accelerated this funding need,” he said.
The National Trust is responsible for around a quarter of the beaches in Northern Ireland, and Climate and Environment Adviser Sean Maxwell agreed that a new drive to protect beaches is needed more than ever.
“Our dynamic and ever-changing landscape is a home for nature, a place for people to enjoy, and it needs protecting,” he said.
“Given the importance of Northern Ireland’s coastline to the environment, economy and culture, long term investment is needed to increase understanding of how it is changing, and to enable coastal decision makers and landowners to make informed choices in the face of increasing climate pressures.
“Some good progress has been made, with the creation of the NI Coastal Forum, and commitments from its two lead Departments (DAERA and DFI) to develop a Coastal Observatory — something National Trust has been calling for.
“But already National Trust has witnessed unprecedented storm damage to fragile coastal environments at Strangford Lough and Murlough National Nature Reserve,” he added.
“Coastal squeeze due to sea level rise could lead to the complete loss of important coastal habitats, some of which are vital to our understanding of nature based solutions to climate change,” he said.
“We must act now to better understand Northern Ireland’s coastal erosion risk in the context of a changing climate.
“We desperately need climate change legislation to secure the policies, systems, knowledge, and funding that allows decision makers to plan for future change.”
Back at Ulster University, Professor Jackson’s expertise will next see him working on high energy storm events and in particular on the effects of Hurricane Irma, an extremely rare category 5 hurricane that decimated Antigua and Barbuda in 2017.
“Our research will contribute to future emergency planning with our findings showing where storm wave impact was highest and where it is likely to be in the future,” he explained, hoping to research on site in the Caribbean next year.
“Over the last 10-15 years, environmental issues and climate change have accelerated so much that it is now becoming part of our social conscience, and we’re in a great position here at Ulster University to show those who need to know, what it will take to change that, even if politicians have come to it late in the day.
“We’ve seen how investment in science has helped bring a Covid-19 vaccine to the world in such a short period of time. The same can be done to address the environment, particularly at our coasts in a rapidly changing climate.”
Then it’s all eyes on Mars as his research plays a part in the 2022 mission by the European Space Agency.
“Several years ago we received research funding for another separate study, examining the airflow over coastal dunes at Magilligan Point. In that work, we used aeronautical computer modelling software usually used in Formula 1 car design and instead replaced cars with sand dunes to simulate the wind coming across the surface of the dunes at Magilligan. It worked brilliantly.” he explained.
“We then applied these techniques to the surface of Mars which revealed new insights into how winds helped shape the surface of Mars.”
That work, which was subsequently published in the prestigious Nature Communications journal, then grew from there.
He added: “We currently hold research funding from the UK Space Agency, that will feed into the European Space Agency’s rover mission to Mars in 2022, specifically examining the winds at the landing site and surrounding areas. The Rover is there to locate signs of life, but we can now accurately advise the European Space Agency where loose sand might represent a hazard to the Rover’s path, as well as areas where winds may have created scoured areas optimal for drilling.
“While we’re just playing a small part, it’s very exciting to be involved. This research has really accelerated since and is starting to pay dividends, with interest around the world helping Ulster University place itself firmly inside this exciting area of science. It also gives us a great position to bid for future projects inside a competitive research market.”
The depth of knowledge that exists in Northern Ireland is good enough for the European Space Agency. It’s high time it was tapped into to turn the tide and protect shores at home. Without it we might just be looking back at 1997 when the environmental disaster movie Volcano tag line was ‘the coast is toast’ and thinking we should have paid more attention.
The sands of time are running out.