Where and what. Dissertation takes shape.

Having had a boat in the marina for six years and having worked at the marina for a year prior to starting my bachelor’s degree, I knew the management team. We had an informal chat about the possibility of a research project to define and monitor the currents within the marina, and the quantity of suspended sediment entering and leaving the marina at different states of the tide. Unfortunately, Premier Marinas felt the administration and bureaucracy that they would have to adhere to would make the project unworkable for them. A blow for me as I really wanted to try to make a difference to the marinas functionality and environmental impact.

Undaunted, and using contacts I had gained from working at Brighton Marina, I contacted a friend at Shoreham Port Authority about my idea. To my surprise he told me that Shoreham Port was already trying alternative methods of sediment management, and following a few emails, I sat down with the harbour master and it became obvious to me very quickly how enthusiastic and helpful the team at Shoreham would be.

Over the course of a few months I developed a sampling project that Shoreham Port Authority would help me complete. The enthusiasm and positivity of everyone at Shoreham was energising and gave me renewed vigour in the project and in the hope that the project really could make a difference.

Now that I had an idea of the direction I wanted my dissertation project to take, and I had managed to secure support from the port authority, I needed to define what the project would consist of?

To research and design an alternative to backhoe dredging was completely beyond the scope of a bachelor’s degree, and I had to keep reminding myself of this as lecture after lecture inspired me to do more and more. The quality and enthusiasm of the teaching staff at the University of Brighton made deciding exactly what the scope of the project would be incredibly difficult.

As I discovered the amazing characteristics of salt marshes (of which Shoreham has many) and their ability to capture and lock away carbon, out performing even the Amazon rainforest per square metre, I wanted to bring this in to the project. As I learnt about the strength, and complexity of ocean currents, tides and amphidromic points, I wanted to explore and develop these inputs. As I discovered the unique and varied flora and fauna that lives in estuary environments, I wanted to bring this magical world and its distinct battles that it wages every tide in to my project. But I had to keep reminding myself of the constraints and expectations of a bachelor’s degree dissertation project.

So it was that the final project was devised. Using three transects on the western arm of the stretch of the River Adur up to almost to the Sussex Yacht Club from the mouth of the river. I would take samples of water at one metre intervals of depth in three places across the river. This would allow me to build up a picture of the volume of suspended sediment at three distinct locations within the estuary. By sampling at different times of the year, at different states of the tide, and after differing weather phenomenon, I could expand the picture of suspended sediment to try and identify key inputs and factors affecting the type and volume of sediment being carried and deposited in the estuary.

With the boundaries of the project decided it felt like I had moved away from the original concept completely, but upon reflection I realised I could not look at what to do with the sediment until I understand completely the origin, volumes and dynamics of the material I hoped to control.

Following discussions with what became my supervising professor, I also added Acoustic Doppler Current Profiling (ADCP) to the project. This compact and portable piece of equipment can analyse a cross section of the river and show you the direction and speed of the flow. This additional information would allow me to show what the currents in the estuary are doing and help to expand on the energy regimes present in the water. (More to follow on the ADCP in another blog piece.)

My dissertation project origins

Having lived and worked in Brighton Marina for over five years, I had seen at first hand the problems of silting-up of a marina. Accumulation of silt is a problem that almost every port, harbour and marina the world over suffers from.
When the high energy ocean waters enter the calm sheltered safety of a port, the drop in energy levels of the water means that it can no longer carry the same amount of suspended sediment, and therefore deposits its suspended load on to the bed of the port.

It’s important to differentiate here between dissolved and suspended. Content that is dissolved in the sea water has undergone a chemical reaction and will remain dissolved regardless of the energy levels of the water. Suspended material however is merely carried by the water and will be deposited as soon as energy levels drop.
In the few years since moving on to my boat, the silting at Brighton Marina has become progressively worse with access to the marina becoming more and more restricted as the attempts to dredge the fairways and berths fails to keep pace with the sediment build-up.

Currently the standard solution to sediment build-up is to scoop it out using a large excavator (backhoe dredging) and dump it in to a specialised (split) barge, that then transports it out to sea and drops it somewhere they think won’t matter.

This method of sediment management raises a number of issues:-
I} discharge of sea toilets, engine grease, litter, and antifoul are all deposits that are particularly concentrated in marinas and ports. None of these contaminants are positive for the marine environment, and in their often-concentrated forms in port silts can be devastating to marine life.
Ii}as silt builds up, anoxic (low or no oxygen present) mud is produced as there is no penetration of the top few centimetres of the mud. This dark, stinking mud is almost devoid of life, but when disturbed (during the dredging process) quantities of methane can be released; a gas that can be over twenty times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.
Iii} a typical split barge (a vessel that is amazing in itself, as it literally splits in two and allows its load to fall down through the gap), can carry up to 600 tonnes of silt in a single load. When dropped on to the sea bed, away from the marina, this sudden and dramatic inundation of silt can be catastrophic to filter feeders and benthic (bottom dwelling) species.
In Brighton the above considerations must be viewed whilst remembering that the marina lies at the western edge of a marina conservation zone, and that all the silt being removed from Brighton marina is then being dumped in to what should be a protected and conserved area.

Backhoe dredging is not a cheap process, with a typical annual bill of £300,000 to £500,000 not being unrealistic, and at these levels of expenditure silt is still accumulating quicker than it is being removed.
With my personal experience of trying to get my own yacht in and out of the marina, with her 1.8 metre draft, and the knowledge I was gaining during my University of Brighton Earth & Ocean Science Bsc (Hons) course, I felt that there had to be a better solution?
I began to read research papers on sediment management, I learnt about the intricacies of suspension times, currents, coastal littoral cells, and particles sizes. With this growing knowledge and interest in how sediment built up, I approached the marina management at Premier Marinas Brighton to discuss a potential dissertation project for my bachelor’s degree.

Iceland

72 hours that will change your life forever.

Before going to Iceland, I had never been on a ‘cold’ holiday (apart from the obligatory ski trip with school, many decades ago), and really I didn’t know what to expect.

Being a mature university student, I had been studying plate tectonics and the processes the earths crust was undergoing, so a trip to Iceland seemed a perfect opportunity to expand my lectures with some real-world examples. Internet research painted a picture of a land almost from Norse fiction, too powerful, vibrant, and dramatic to be real. So, with the assumption that some serious photoshopping and exaggeration had coloured the travel writer’s gushing’s, we made our plans.

This was always going to be a trip on a shoestring, and when travelling to a remote location such as Iceland, that is almost an impossibility. Flying with EasyJet, and staying in a small apartment on the outskirts of Reykjavik seemed our most economical option.

We hired a car for the three days, and with this we didn’t skimp but instead went for a four-wheel drive vehicle in order to ensure we could travel to more places. I’ve listed a breakdown of our costs at the end of this series, because even doing this trip on the cheap….. isn’t cheap.

Thursday

We left Gatwick airport mid afternoon on a clear March morning, and headed off with a rucksack (cabin luggage) each. The flight is a little over three hours, and as we approached Iceland the cloud cover cleared spectacularly. Approaching along the Southern coast, we had magnificent views of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 pushing thousands of tonnes of ash into the atmosphere and grounding flights across Europe.

Still excited about our first glimpse of this amazing island, we slowly descended and swung around over the sea to approach the airport. It was then as we glanced down at the deep blue waters of the North Atlantic that we saw a pod of whales breaching during their migration. That was when we both realised we would be saying “wow” quite a lot over the next few days.

Upon landing and exiting the plane, the first thing that hits you is the smell. During the three days, the intensity waxed and waned, but was ever present. The sulphurous smell, ‘eggy doesn’t do it justice’, is always with you, even the tap water tastes of it.

A quick and efficient transit through the airport and car hire rep, and we were on the road to Reykjavik. (Iceland drives on the right! A fact I soon realised, as oncoming cars pointed it out to me insistently.) Having never been to a volcanic island, or landscape before, I wasn’t prepared for the alien appearance we saw as we drove along the deserted highway. Black volcanic rocks, snow and lichen stretched in every direction, and the grey brooding sky seemed to merge with the horizon seamlessly.

Navigation in Iceland is relatively straightforward, with signposts clearly marking your way, and a distinct lack of roads making it relatively easy to head in the right direction. And so it was that we found the district where our apartment was located. A quick call to the owner, and the usual Icelandic approach to security, i.e. “just let yourself in, it’s all unlocked and waiting for you”, and we were settled in.

We had just enough time to drop off our bags and we were heading out again to the Blue Lagoon. An Icelandic tourist attraction that everyone needs to visit once in their life, even with the high entry costs. We arrived at 9pm and the place was virtually empty, with clouds of steam billowing in to the clear night sky. Like most things in Iceland, items you forget to pack can be very expensive to buy locally, so the swimming shorts that I forgot to bring with me would of cost £40 to buy in the onsite shop. Fortunately for me, I saw no difference between boxer shorts and swimming trunks (and it was quite dark thankfully!)

Blue Lagoon resort, Iceland, at night.

Image courtesy of wallpaperbetter.com

Beginning life as a geothermal plant, utilising the power of the hot volcanic water bubbling up to the surface from deep underground, the cooling ponds from the plant became a place for locals to enjoy an outdoor dip. Not wanting to miss a commercial opportunity, the recreation was formalised and made easier to access in the 80’s, and now you can relax in very warm waters under the stars.

Lying in an outdoor pool, with the mist lazily drifting up into the night sky was possibly the most surreal experience I have had in a long while. With the place almost empty and the air temperature well below zero, seeing the moon casting an eerie ethereal glow to the lagoon was breath-taking.

With the high mineral content of the water, and the complimentary facial scrub from the local mud, we left the lagoon feeling relaxed and at the same time stunned at the otherworldly beauty of the place.

Stopping at a supermarket on the way to the apartment, we stocked up on a few supplies (enough to get us through breakfast, and a light lunch for on the road the next day). With a small basket of provisions purchased, and the travel wallet the equivalent of £50 lighter, we headed back to the apartment.

To say that my first impressions of Iceland were amazing would be such an understatement, but the trip had hardly begun. Exhausted, amazed, and with extremely well exfoliated skin, we arrived back to the apartment with huge smiles on our faces.

Route 1 around Iceland circumvents the Island and is the main (and only) means of transport for many on Iceland. Image source – S Hall ©

The rest of the trip will be posted soon.

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S Hall ©

The rest of the trip will be posted soon.

Brighton Marina, an analog for climate change.

Brighton Marina, inner harbour water level, February 2018. S. Hall ©

The Marina’s birth

Built in the 1970s, Brighton Marina came to typify for many the twentieth century’s love of concrete and disregard for the natural world. Perched on the south coast of England in an area dominated by towering chalk cliffs, the marina which is entirely artificial juts out into the sea like a monument to the human race’s engineering achievements. Or an ugly boil on the coastline, depending on your point of view.

With a chequered financial history, and varying objectives over its lifetime, the marina is seen by many as more like a housing estate than a centre of sailing excellence. Recent high-rise developments and encroachment into the waterways of the outer harbour of the marina is a reminder of the fickle financial market we all live in, with the planned multi-million-pound residential development postponed. Or maybe cancelled?

A changing world

With this twentieth century vision of our environment dictating the structure and form of the marina, the growing twenty-first century awareness of climate change and the anthropogenic impact on the world is slowly starting to reveal a worrying future for all of us, not just those in low-lying distant lands. The universal opinion of those in the know is that climate change (we can also call it global warming if we are thinking on a global scale) is happening. The only question is how awful it will be before the rest of us wake up to the danger.

Melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, caused by average global temperatures creeping up, is causing the volume of water in our oceans to increase. These rising temperatures are also causing the water in the oceans to expand (a process called ‘thermal expansion’), so raising sea levels even further. These effects are just two of the myriad of effects changing global environments. We could also go into detail about ocean acidification, albedo positive feedback loops, terrifying perma-frost releases of methane, and increased water vapour amplifying greenhouse effects, but that would simply ‘muddy’ the proverbial waters.

Depending on which scenario is chosen (i.e. how quickly we as a species get off our arse and do something about the problem), predictions for sea level rise vary from 1 metre to over 10 metres by the end of this century. Which figure is almost immaterial, the key point is that the sea is getting higher and we need to start to worry about it. In this respect, Brighton Marina is a perfect example of what we have done, what we need to do, and how quickly we need to do it.

One hour from disaster

On a perfectly ordinary Sunday in mid-February 2018, Brighton Marina residents, shops, and visitors came within an hour of widespread flooding. This wasn’t due to the rise in sea level, storm damage or any act of God, but simply technical failure of a single piece of equipment.

Most of the Marina is built below the high-water mark, meaning that at some point each month the promenade within the Marina is all that stands between the users of the Marina and the English Channels. On the 18th of February the lock gates in the marina malfunctioned, and suddenly the defences against the encroaching tides had been breached. Luckily the problem was circumvented, and the defences were reinstated before any damage had been caused. Whether the failure was due to human error, poor maintenance or a lack of investment, the fact remains the marina came within 60 cm of major flooding.

In the same way that Brighton Marina is ready for the challenges of today, rather than tomorrow; so we can ask if society generally is falling into the same trap of building for today, rather than planning for tomorrow?

What does this mean for the future?

Does the fault lie in the original design not anticipating future sea level changes?

Does the fault lie in the quality of maintenance within the marina?

Does the fault lie in our arrogant assumption that we are masters of our environment?

Perhaps the answer, at least in part, is yes to all three. In a capitalist society the market is king, and profits dictate behaviour, so the marina will maintain its equipment and defences in such a way that allows the companies involved to make a profit for its shareholders. In the same way countries, companies and individuals will continue to consume without regard to their environment while it is economically viable to do so. The problem is the planet does have a balance sheet. It doesn’t directly impact companies profit and loss, and consequences are often borne by people, animals, and physically remote ecosystems.

How do we change this inequity in the system?

Until polluters are charged (whether that be emissions from power stations, plastics pumped in to our oceans, or chemicals on our fields destroying any organism seen as a threat, to just name a few), the planet as a whole will have to continue to pick up the tab. It will pay a high price for our shiny new cars, our gadgets, and our consumption-driven lifestyles. At some point our credit with mother nature will run out, and we as a species we will be held to account. Many think it is already too late, the question now is not if it will cost us, but just how much we will have to pay for our arrogance.