Suffolk coastal study to reveal secrets of the sea

PUBLISHED: 07:15 24 February 2018

National Trust area ranger Richard Gilbert views the Suffolk coast from the temporary radar platform installed at Dunwich Heath. Picture: JOHN GRANT

National Trust area ranger Richard Gilbert views the Suffolk coast from the temporary radar platform installed at Dunwich Heath. Picture: JOHN GRANT


The National Trust’s Dunwich Heath is the base for hi-tech marine research.

Minsmere beach, looking north towards Dunwich Heath. Picture SUE RUSACKMinsmere beach, looking north towards Dunwich Heath. Picture SUE RUSACK

A strange structure that has appeared on the cliff edge at the National Trust’s Dunwich Heath may look like an alien spacecraft - but it is helping researchers solve the mysteries of Suffolk’s coastal changes rather than providing any hint of the complexities of the cosmos.

On a coastline where the only constant is change, thanks to the North Sea’s immense erosive powers, a seabed and beaches that are always shape-shifting and the ominous threat of sea level rise, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. The cutting-edge technology being employed by the curious blue eight-metre-high Dunwich cube and its assorted appendages will provide invaluable data about what is going on in and under the waves.

The structure is a temporary radar tower deployed as part of a Minsmere/Dunwich study within the national BLUEcoast Project, a partnership of marine research organisations that aims to enhance the UK’s coastal management evidence base. At Dunwich, the study is being carried out by the National Oceanography Centre and the University of Liverpool, in partnership with Marlan Marine Technologies and the Coastal Processes Research Group at the University of Plymouth.

Facilitated by the National Trust, the Dunwich research is being carried out as one of seven projects around the UK’s coast, each studying areas with differing characteristics. It is providing marine radar recordings covering an area up to 3.5km off Suffolk, hydrographic surveys and surface current data, supported by video analysis.

Part of the RSPB's Minsmere nature reserve, viewed from the low-lying Minsmere beach. 
Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNPart of the RSPB's Minsmere nature reserve, viewed from the low-lying Minsmere beach. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

In addition, “storm chasers” from Liverpool and Plymouth universities are monitoring weather and sea conditions, ready to quickly respond to major weather events so that any coastal impacts can be studied as they happen.

The BLUEcoast Project identifies the Minsmere/Dunwich study area as one that has “moderate energy” with a two-metre spring tidal range and 76% of wave heights less than two metres. Storm surges of up to one metre “occur relatively frequently due to depressions moving slowly across the North Sea.” The Dunwich and Sizewell offshore banks played an “important role in reducing wave energy that reaches the beach.”

Minsmere Sluice acted as a “pivotal point, separating an area of net erosion from an area of net accretion,” it says.

It adds: “Between 1836 and 1903 the frontage north of the sluice eroded at about 1.1m per year, while the frontage to the south accreted at an average rate of 1.7m per year in the initial 50 years. In the last 50 years erosion rates have been lower than in the past.”

National Trust area ranger Richard Gilbert said the research was a “brilliant opportunity for the National Trust to work with some excellent partners who are very highly regarded in their specialist fields.”

The trust had closely studied the coastal processes affecting its 700 miles of coastline around England and Wales. Its 2005 Shifting Shores report on the issue, reviewed in 2015, had set out an approach based on adapting to change and working with natural processes. The trust was now taking “the long-term view” and was working with coastal communities, partner organisations and “across boundaries” to see the inevitable coastal changes as “opportunities and as a force for good, with new habitats being created.”

Mr Gilbert added: “A study such as the one that is now under way makes for good, informed decision-making. The more we understand the better it is and the more willingness people will have for adaption to change.

“The key message from us would be that we know the Suffolk coast is changing and we are happy to support research that can help us and others as we plan for the future.”

Much of the research zone off Suffolk is east of the beach frontage of the RSPB’s famous Minsmere nature reserve. The RSPB’s Suffolk area manager Adam Rowlands said the wildlife charity was looking forward to seeing the results of the study as they could help it understand and prepare for the impacts of potential future climate change at its flagship nature reserve.

“We’re certainly watching with interest,” he said. “If the study’s findings help predict how climate change is likely to impact on habitats and wildlife at Minsmere, this could potentially inform how we prepare and adapt to different future conditions on the reserve.”

More information about the BLUEcoast Project can be found at

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