Making space for coastal change in cities: Which reclaimed land can we let go? (UrbanCoastAdapt)

The most recent IPPC report (IPCC, 2021) clearly shows sea levels will continue to rise until 2300 and (landward) retreat is one of the six recommended responses to maintain community resilience in the face of sea level rise. Around the UK, erosion risks due to climate change are accelerating and in many urban areas coastal and estuarine engineering structures are coming to the end of their design life. The land currently protected by these structures is often comprised of artificial made ground – land that was reclaimed by extending into the sea, which is often post-industrial, currently derelict or has light industrial use which is often identified by planners as suitable land for ‘regeneration’. This combination of low value land use and unsuitable defences gives society a choice– protect this low-lying land at increased risk and cost with rising sea levels – or return land to the sea, in order to improve the long-term resilience of our coastal cities and towns? If we want to consider the latter option, then we urgently need more data on the composition, erosivity and rates of sediment transport of this often highly heterogeneous ‘made ground’. These data are required to provide an evidence base to better underpin urban coastal climate change adaptation options and restoring of the land-sea natural boundary using nature-based solutions.

Without data on the nature, processes and change of former made or reclaimed urban ground, it is difficult to assess risk, to determine if it is feasible for this made ground to ‘retreat’ by allowing erosion and coastal realignment to a more natural position. This retreat option has the potential to reduce the requirement for developing or maintaining expensive hard coastal defenses and to allow us to live more sustainably with a dynamic coast. This project will address this key knowledge gap, by carrying out pioneering research in urban geomorphology and climate change risk assessment that can directly feed into existing practitioner tools & datasets.
The project’s specific objectives are to:
1) Characterise made ground using secondary data from a range of sources (e.g. local authorities, British Geological Survey) and using GIS, map the distribution of made ground along the UK coast subject to natural erosion and associated future climate change risks (e.g. using existing coastal erosion risk data).
2) Undertake field surveys and laboratory analyses to assess the geomorphological and sedimentological characteristics of artificial made ground – on land and also on reclaimed land and the coastal sedimentary systems fronting them. This detailed scientific work, using a range of geospatial (e.g. LIDAR, SfM) and laboratory testing methods (e.g. ICP-OES/MS to determine ecotoxic metal concentrations), to determine for selected UK sites: how toxic is this made ground, what is its sediment composition and volume?
3) Investigate and model the morphodynamic processes and sediment transport pathways controlling the integration of made ground materials within coastal sedimentary systems to help answer how fast may this heterogenous made ground erode and mix into the more natural coastal sediment system?

4) Develop an outline risk assessment framework to aid identification of reclaimed land sites with artificial sediments suitable (i.e. benign enough) to retreat and re-enter the coastal system.

1) quantitative data to underpin coastal change risk assessments and climate change adaptation planning to support government agencies and local authorities.
2) Methodology for identifying and assessing the suitability of made ground for urban managed realignments.

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Image Captions

Urban mixed beach in Edinburgh,Urban reclaimed land,Advanced drone technology


This project will use cutting edge geomorphological, geochemistry and coastal processes science to address this question. A combination of laboratory analysis of sediment characteristics and geochemistry, remote and field monitoring techniques of erosion and transport rates, meteorological and oceanographic data, alongside numerical modelling, statistical and spatial analysis will be used to generate novel understanding of made ground erosion risk, rates and dynamics of made ground sediment when it enters the coastal system. Given the need and novelty of this project, it is expected that high quality, high impact papers and policy briefings would be generated by this project.

Project findings will not only enhance process-based understanding of the erosion, sediment transport and composition of reclaimed land, it will also directly contribute to a gap in our evidence base for managing coastal erosion risk and delivering public bodies climate change adaptation targets in Scotland (a requirement in Scottish Law). It will also improve our spatial understanding of the extent of artificial made ground for the coast of Scotland and Northern England, complementing the dataset on the number of coastal waste sites (e.g. landfills) at risk of erosion in England and Scotland being generated by the NERC-funded Highlight Topic project “Legacy Wastes in the Coastal Zone: Environmental Risks and Management Futures” on which co-supervisor MacDonald is a co-investigator. The student would also directly benefit from gaining exposure to working with staff from the Dynamic Coast project and for their datasets including their Coastal Zone Classification, and training activities to coastal local authorities and agencies. Students would gain training in this, and their networks and future employability be expanded greatly through these interactions.

To achieve this the student will be supervised by an award-winning, internationally world leading multi-institutional team composed by scientists in the Universities of Glasgow (Naylor, Hurst, MacDonald)and Stirling (Loureiro). The student will also gain experience in sediment geochemistry analyses with the support of other researchers at the University of Glasgow.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review (M1-3); compilation and validation of existing mapping and site investigation datasets, creating a mapping dataset of made ground along naturally eroding coasts for Scotland and Northern England (M4-6); sampling design, site selection and arranging permissions for sampling (M7-9); preliminary field investigations to test sampling methods (M9-12). Attendance of British Society for Geomorphology postgraduate workshop and annual conference. Writing up the literature review and reclaimed land erosion risk mapping for academic journal.

Year 2

Field and remotely-sensed (UAV) data collection (M13-17); laboratory analysis of sediment and drafting of baseline geochemistry and composition results (M18-21); field and remotely-sensed monitoring of reclaimed land erosion and sediment transport rates (M22-M24). Attendance at international conference and submitting the sediment composition and geochemistry paper.

Year 3

Analysis of sediment transport data and combined laboratory and field results (M25-30); drafting of results for publication (M31-33); exploratory modelling of erosion and sediment transport characteristics of reclaimed land (M33-36). Attendance of the European Geosciences Union annual conference.

Year 3.5

Finalise the writing of manuscripts/chapters; submit thesis (M37-42).

& Skills

Add information about the training that will be completed during the lifespan of the project and key skills and expertise developed. (240)
The student will receive extensive training-through-research under the guidance of the supervisory team, which will be complemented by specific training activities to equip the student with the skills and expertise to become an independent researcher. Specific training in research methods, including programming with Matlab/Python for statistical analysis, image processing and data integration; GIS for spatial analysis; fieldwork design and instrumentation; numerical modelling with SWAN and XBeach. The student will also gain skills and experience through training and practice in laboratory analytical techniques and data processing, including compositional and geochemical analysis of sediment samples by microscopy, X-Ray Diffraction, and Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). These technical skills will be complemented by training in core scientific skills (writing, presentation and science communication) and transferable skills (data management, task coordination and exploitation of results with end users). The student will also work with national and local government staff to determine what their data needs and requirements are for erosion risk of reclaimed land, and to identify how these improved data can support coastal climate change adaptation decision-making. The lead supervisor has extensive knowledge exchange experience which she will share with the student.

The student will also participate in IAPETUS2 training and events, which will complement the personal training plan. The student will also benefit from the extensive and growing research networks the supervisory team have and get the opportunity to participate in some of these larger externally-funded projects (e.g. NERC Highlight Topic) if they wish to do so, to further enhance their future employability and training experiences. They will also gain practical experience of working at the science-policy-practice interface with a variety of practitioners in government agencies.

References & further reading

Bon de Sousa (Loureiro) et al., 2018. Applied Geography 99, 31-43. doi: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2018.07.023
Brand, J.H. and Spencer, K.L. 2017. Assessing the risk of pollution from historic coastal landfills. Executive Summary for the Environment Agency.
Brown (Hurst) et al. 2016. Journal of Environmental Management. 184(Pt. 2), pp. 400-408. (doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2016.09.090)
Naylor et al. 2017. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms. 42(1), pp. 166-190. (doi:10.1002/esp.4062)
Nicholls, Robert, et al. (2021) Coastal landfills and rising sea levels: a challenge for the 21st century. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8, [710342].(doi:10.3389/fmars.2021.710342).
Preston (Hurst) et al. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms. 43(11), pp. 2421-2434. (doi:10.1002/esp.4405)

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