I am a part-time PhD student, full-time beach nerd! This is a place to share my research and other cool things that piqued my curiosity.
This morning as I was finishing my first coffee, one of my Deltares colleagues shared a video of a house on the beach in El Salvador. It was a surreal, post-apocalyptic, Planet of the Apes scene, made all the more mysterious by the accompanying news text (translated from Dutch): “Abandoned villa washes up entirely on the beach in El Salvador. The ruins of a villa have recently washed up on the beach of La Puntilla in El Salvador. It is a great mystery how the entire house ended up on the beach. Hurricane Elsa may have blown the building away.“
Having spent a fair bit of time professionally contemplating the destructive power of storm-generated waves on tropical coastlines, I was immediately skeptical about this hypothesis. How could a massive concrete structure like that survive such a pummeling and then just “wash up” on a beach?
Being a bunch of sediment transport nerds, my colleagues made all kinds of jokes about building a house-transport module into XBeach or SedTRAILS, or estimating the critical shear threshold and porosity of this giant “particle”. However my curiosity was irrevocably piqued- how did the damn thing get there? It must have been there the whole time, with the coast eroding around that, but how or why?
The Dutch news site was not particularly helpful, so I snooped around on the internet until I found a promising lead in the El Salvadorian news. Apparently the house is located near the village of La Puntilla, on the Pacific coast of El Salvador. Apparently it was a former hotel built (unwisely) right next to the beach. Suffering significant damage during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, it later became a church. Numerous people died in the former hotel and more recently among the ruins, so the building is even spookier than it first seemed. Indeed, after looking in Google Earth, it became apparent that the hotel has been there the entire time:
So the hotel didn’t just “wash up on the beach” one day. But why exactly did it erode so much? Was there a particularly devastating storm? Is climate change or some nefarious human meddling in the coastline to blame? By zooming out a little bit, we can put this coastal erosion into a larger context.
Google Earth is nearly always my first go-to tool for investigating a new site as a coastal engineer — you can learn so much by carefully observing how a given beach or estuary has changed through time, and by looking for evidence of the physical processes shaping the landscape. For instance, white foam usually indicates breaking waves, and by watching how sand piles up in certain places, we can estimate in which direction the sand is mostly moving. What can we learn about this site?
It seems that the hotel was built on a type of coastal feature that is notorious for massive erosion world-wide: the coast adjacent to a tidal inlet. Tidal inlets connect lagoons with the ocean, the water rushing in and out of them several times a day. The water moves very fast and is stirred up by waves, so it can carry lots of sand and mud to and from the nearby coast. This means that this tidal inlets and the coastlines next to them have the potential to change shape dramatically over time. The inlet channel and smaller channels connected to it have a tendency to migrate back and forth across the underwater ebb-tidal delta like an out-of-control fire hose. If one of these channels is pushed up against the coast, it can cause massive erosion. This seems to be what happened to the abandoned hotel.
If you examine a timelapse in Google Earth (here), the incredibly dynamic nature of this system is apparent:
By a remarkable coincidence, this is the same process that I am investigating in my PhD: how does sediment move around at tidal inlets like this? It is not only the El Salvadorians who need to worry about this process — the topic is also a vital matter of investigation for Dutch coastal management authorities trying to protect their coast. Lesson learned: don’t mess with ebb-tidal deltas!
Ebb-tidal deltas are gigantic piles of sand that form at the seaward mouth of tidal inlets. They are constantly on the move, shifting shape and size in response to the waves and tides. Where exactly is that sand going? This is a question I have been struggling with for the past 5 years during my PhD, and we have recently made great strides in part due to the efforts of Paula Lambregts.
Yesterday, Paula Lambregts successfully defended her master’s thesis, “Sediment bypassing at Ameland inlet“. I had the great honour of co-supervising Paula’s researcher throughout the last ten or so months, and I am enormously proud of her. Her project encompassed a range of approaches, including bathymetric analysis and numerical modelling, to solve the mystery of the sediment pathways.
First, Paula’s detective work led her to examine detailed measurements of the seabed bathymetry at Ameland Inlet in the Netherlands, taken over the past fifteen years. These measurements give snapshots of the underwater delta landscape. By comparing the bathymetry from different months or years, we can track the delta’s evolution. In the image below, we see four snapshots of the ebb-tidal delta before and after the construction of a sand nourishment (i.e., the large pile of sand that appears in panel B). This nourishment was a large-scale pilot test to determine if creating sand deposits like this is a viable strategy for strengthening the coast of nearby islands.
After describing how the delta has evolved in the past, Paula developed hypotheses about the physics underlying this behaviour- how do waves and tides move the sand around to create the patterns we observe? To answer this question, she used a combination of computer models to estimate sand transport pathways. This allows us to “connect the dots” and explain how the sand moved from one place to another. The first component was a D-Flow FM model, which is used to simulate the hydrodynamics (waves and tides) and sediment transport (where and how much sand moves). The second component of her modelling approach was to apply SedTRAILS, a brand-new tool developed by my colleagues and I at Deltares for visualizing predicting sediment transport pathways. Using SedTRAILS, she was able to create some really cool maps that indicate where the sand goes.
Drawing on her prior expertise in geology, Paula combined those two lines of evidence (the measurements of the seabed and the modelled sediment pathways), to come up with a series of fantastic conceptual diagrams. These diagrams distill the mysterious piles of sand and complex spaghetti of the images above into a more easily understandable picture:
The work that she did is extremely valuable for coastal management, since it gives more insight into where (and where not!) to construct sand nourishments. It also brings new insights to science about how these complex systems work. Last of all, it is enormously helpful for the research that we are continuing to do at TU Delft and Deltares. In September I will continue on with the work on sediment transport pathways at tidal inlets begun during my PhD, and build on the work that Paula has carried out in her thesis project. I am extremely proud of her and hope that we can continue to collaborate in the future!
I love lighthouses, and am borderline obsessed with them. I have lucky lighthouse socks (I’m wearing them today), I own books about them, and in high school I made a papier-mâché lighthouse lamp. I have spent hours in the rain trying to photograph them during storms. Furthermore, they are most often found in places where the sea is at its most violent, and from a technical perspective, most interesting.
Naturally, when a bright master’s student from our lab asked if I was interested in joining his thesis committee to research the impact of breaking waves on lighthouses, I could not help but say yes. My research on coral reefs focuses mainly on the complex ways in which waves change as they break across the reef. In many ways, this is a similar process to what happens when waves hit the rocky shoals that many lighthouses are built on. This makes for a compelling intersection between my professional interests and private obsessions!
I am extremely proud to announce that Jan van Gorsel has successfully defended his MSc thesis, “Numerical analysis of broken regular wave forces on a shoal-mounted cylinder“. I was extremely privileged to sit on his graduation committee and work with him for the past 9 months.Continue reading Lighthouse Fever
Coral reefs and the islands that they protect from flooding are in big trouble. This is a recurring theme on this blog, and now it’s time for the latest update. We are currently building towards the development of an early flood warning system for low-lying tropical islands fronted by coral reefs. Our previous work on this topic has focused on finding ways to do this accurately for a wide variety of coral reef shapes and sizes, as well as different wave and sea level conditions. However, it’s not enough to be accurate- to deliver timely early warnings, you also need to be fast.
That’s where the latest research of Vesna Bertoncelj comes in.
I am extremely proud to announce that Vesna Bertoncelj has successfully defended her MSc thesis, “Efficient and accurate modeling of wave-driven flooding on coral reef-lined coasts: On the interpolation of parameterized boundary conditions“. I had the great privilege of sitting on her graduation committee and working with her over the past year or so.
Vesna’s research provides us with new approaches for making highly accurate predictions of coastal flooding, at limited computational expense. The numerical models that we use to estimate flooding often take a long time to simulate, since they resolve many complex physical processes at high resolution in space and time. However, by paring down these models to only the most essential components for the task at hand, we can do this much faster. My colleagues at Deltares recently developed the SFINCS model, which has been successfully used to predict flooding in a fraction of the time that our standard models take. But how do we put all these different pieces together?
First, Vesna established a baseline for model performance by running a computationally intensive XBeach Non-Hydrostatic model (XB-NH+), and a much faster SFINCS model. These models provide an estimate for runup (R2%), which can be taken as a proxy for coastal flooding. In the second step, she used a lookup table (LUT) of pre-computed XBeach model output and to derive the input for the SFINCS model. The crucial task is doing this quickly and accurately, so she experimented with different interpolation techniques for deriving that input. She then compared her new approach with the standard models to find the fastest and most accurate combination.
Her research gives us a useful methodology that we can implement to speed up our early flood warning system, saving time and hopefully someday saving lives.
Vesna’s quality of work is excellent and she has a fantastic attitude towards research and collaboration. Her curiosity, professionalism, and diligence will undoubtedly serve her well in the years to come. I hope that we will have other opportunities to collaborate in the future. If anybody out there needs a bright young coastal researcher and/or modeller, hire her!
We frequently hear in the news about dying coral reefs, and also about the threats of sea level rise and climate change. But there is a key gap: what if we can hit two birds with one stone, and restore damaged ecosystems while providing vital protection against flooding? Our latest research demonstrates how coastal managers and ecologists can join forces to achieve both goals, which may help stretch limited funding further.
I am extremely proud to share Floortje Roelvink’s first scientific paper, “Coral reef restorations can be optimized to reduce coastal flooding hazards“, published in Frontiers of Marine Science. I had the great privilege of sitting on her MSc thesis committee two years ago, and she has been our colleague at Deltares ever since.Continue reading Restoring Coral Reefs for Flood Protection
At TU Delft, a requirement for our PhD defense is to make ten propositions based on what we have learned during the previous years. Claims posed by my friends and colleagues deal with the nitty gritty details (“All diffusive processes can be derived from an advective one, and failing to do so yields incorrect modelling“) but also the bigger picture of how we do what we do (“The way morphological models are presented and interpreted has a lot in common with predictions of snow depth in five years on December 26th at 4pm. The knowledge in these models deserves a better presentation“).
The propositions must be both defendable and opposable, so as to stimulate an interesting debate during the defense. Some of the propositions should reflect the findings of our research, but it is also traditional to include statements that have nothing to do with it. One colleague even suggested (tongue in cheek) that the increase in the height of Dutch men over time could be explained by sea level rise. I couldn’t resist analyzing the data myself, and the results were surprisingly good:
These propositions are a chance to inject a bit of last-minute philosophizing into our Doctorates of Philosophy, and range from the wise (“No wind is favourable if a person does not know to what port (s)he is steering – Seneca“) to the downright cheeky (“This proposition is not opposable“).
What I Learned by Counting Sand for 5 Years
As the clock is ticking on my own PhD (259 days, 13 hours, 39 minutes, and 51 seconds, but who’s counting? *eye twitches*), I started preparing some propositions of my own (obviously in a fit of procrastination on my dissertation). After nearly five years of scrutinizing sand and contemplating connectivity, my research has led me to an inescapable conclusion:
Ebb-tidal deltas are badass morphological features (BAMFs),
(c.f. Phillips ).
What, pray tell, is an ebb-tidal delta, and why is it so badass? Ebb-tidal deltas are large underwater piles of sand at the mouth of estuaries and tidal inlets, deposited by outflowing tides and reshaped by waves. I spend my days studying how waves and tides move sand around on the Ameland ebb-tidal delta in the northern part of the Netherlands (see below). We need to know this in order to plan ecologically-sustainable flood protection measures for the Dutch coast. A morphological feature is just a fancy name for some part of a landscape, like a hill or a valley or a beach.
What makes a badass “badass”?
Phillips defines the archetypal badass as “individualistic, non-conformist, and able to produce disproportionate results”, and applies this concept to geomorphology (the study of how landscapes evolve, at the crossroads of geology and physical geography). Ebb-tidal deltas meet these three criteria, which makes them badass morphological features (BAMFs):
- Ebb-tidal deltas are each unique (in shape, location, composition, and in terms of the environmental forces shaping them (like waves and tides)), and hence individualistic.
- Ebb-tidal deltas are chaotic systems which defy accurate prediction using physics-based numerical models, and hence are non-conformist or “naughty”. This numerical naughtiness is a serious problem for coastal engineers and scientists, since a failure to accurately predict ebb-tidal delta evolution can threaten public safety and lead to costly property or infrastructure damage. They do not “play by the rules” of our existing physics-based deterministic models.
- Ebb-tidal deltas are highly nonlinear systems which can greatly amplify small instabilities, and hence produce disproportionate results.
In addition to the strict definitions of Phillips, ebb-tidal deltas are also “belligerent or intimidating, ruthless, and tough”, other traits reflective of badassery [Oxford Engish Dictionary]. The Columbia River ebb-tidal delta alone is responsible for dozens shipwrecks in the past century, and Ameland ebb-tidal delta has also featured numerous wrecks throughout its history.
Quoting Thomas Pynchon, Phillips also notes that badasses are “able to work mischief on a large scale”. Ameland ebb-tidal delta covers an area of approximately 100 square kilometers, roughly the size of The Hague. Many ebb-tidal deltas around the world are even larger!
Now admittedly, ebb-tidal deltas are just big piles of sand. A big pile of sand is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “badass”, unless you are Ralph Bagnold or a Sarlacc. This could probably also be considered gratuitous personification or anthropomorphization.
I’m sure that many of my friends and family have been scratching their heads as to why I would sacrifice the latter half of my 20s to understand them better. A critical reader might ask, “is it possible that you have only convinced yourself that ebb-tidal deltas are cool out of self-preservation?” And the answer is yes. Yes, I have. Nonetheless, I remain steadfast in my assertion that ebb-tidal deltas exhibit major symptoms of geomorphological badassery.
Although the concept of geomorphological badassery may seem silly at first, it illuminates several important truths of our (mis)understanding of these complex bathymetric features. Ebb-tidal deltas are important to study for reasons of coastal flood protection, navigational safety, and ecological value, but we are bad at predicting how they will evolve. This is because each ebb-tidal delta is unique, making it challenging to generalize their behavior. Furthermore, their chaotic, non-conformist behavior renders many of our usual deterministic prediction techniques ineffective. Lastly, the amplifying effect of highly nonlinear physical processes means that small physical changes (e.g., the development of a tiny shoal) could have disproportionately large consequences (e.g., relocation of a channel several kilometers wide). As such, badassery provides a useful conceptual framework for describing the challenges presented by ebb-tidal deltas to coastal engineers and scientists.
 Chavarrias Borras, V. . Obtaining well-posedness in mathematical modelling of fluvial morphodynamics. PhD Thesis, Delft University of Technology.
 de Schipper, M.A. . Alongshore variability of nourished and natural beaches. PhD Dissertation, Delft University of Technology.
 Meirelles Nunes da Rocha, S. Effects of a stratified tidal flow on the morphodynamics. PhD Dissertation, Delft University of Technology.
 de Vet, P.L.M. . Intertidal Flats in Engineered Estuaries: On the Hydrodynamics, Morphodynamics, and Implications for Ecology and System Management. PhD Dissertation, Delft University of Technology.
 Phillips, J. D. (2015). Badass geomorphology. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 40(1), 22-33. (Yes, this is a legitimate scientific publication!)
 Elias, E., Teske, R., van der Spek, A., & Lazar, M. . Modelling tidal-inlet morphodynamics on medium time scales. In The Proceedings of the Coastal Sediments 2015.
 Kennedy, B. A. . A naughty world. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 550-558.
 Elias, E. P., Van der Spek, A. J., Pearson, S. G., & Cleveringa, J. . Understanding sediment bypassing processes through analysis of high-frequency observations of Ameland Inlet, the Netherlands. Marine Geology, 415, 105956.
 Pynchon T. . Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? The New York Times Book Review (October 28): 40–41.
It has been a crazy year, but work-wise I am on the final stretch, at least. Tonight at the ungodly hour of 12am CET, I will present my poster at the American Geophysical Union conference. It is at a much more reasonable 3pm PST in California where the conference organizers are located. If you have registered for the conference, you can see the poster via this link. Otherwise, I will try to put you in the loop here.
Estuaries are complex environments shaped by the interaction of waves, tides, rivers, and humans. Understanding how sand and mud move through estuaries is essential for their effective management. In an approach known as connectivity, the pathways taken by sand and mud through estuaries can be represented as a connected network of nodes and links, similarly to a subway map. Connectivity provides numerous mathematical techniques and metrics that are well-suited to describing and comparing these pathways in estuaries.
We use connectivity to map out and analyze sand and mud pathways in four estuaries around the world: the Wadden Sea (the Netherlands), Western Scheldt (NL), San Francisco Bay (US), and Columbia River (US). Our analysis is based on the outcome of numerical simulations, and we explore the benefits of different simulation techniques. We conclude that connectivity is a useful approach for visualizing and comparing the pathways that sand and mud takes through different estuaries. We can use this method to plan and predict the impact of human interventions in these environments, such as dredging.
However, a comparison of connectivity metrics suggests a dependency not just on sediment transport processes, but also on the choices made in schematizing networks from underlying models. Essentially, we’re not comparing apples to apples yet, so if we are going to make comparisons between different estuaries, we need to make sure that we set up our models in an equivalent way. Our ongoing research will focus on optimizing these numerical models to make more meaningful quantitative comparisons of different estuaries.
Some ideas are really hard to understand, but it helps if we can talk about them using simple words. One of my favourite books of all time is the Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind XKCD. In it, Munroe tries to describe scientific concepts using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. With the help of a text editor to flag any illegal words, I prepared the following summary of my PhD research, and am presenting it tomorrow in a special science education session at the online American Geophysical Union conference. If you are not attending, you can also check out my presentation here:
Here are the words that go with my pictures:
There is a very low land next to the big water. It has a lot of wind and it rains there most of the time. It is so low that it would be under water now if people didn’t build big walls around it and suck all the water out. The big water is going up and up and up, and we want to keep everyone’s feet dry so that they stay safe for a long time to come. The plan is to put lots and lots of very tiny rocks along the edge between the big water and the very low land. When there is too much wind, the big water will make huge waves. These will hurt the wall of very tiny rocks, but if we have enough very tiny rocks, the big water won’t get inside the very low land and the people will be safe. It is hard to guess where these very tiny rocks will go when we put them on the edge of the big water, because the waves move them around. We use water-counters, rock-counters, and computers to learn more about how the very tiny rocks move through the water and make better guesses about what they will do. People in many other lands are also worried about huge waves and the big water going up, so we hope that the things we learn in the very low land can help them too.
This was one of the most fun presentations I have ever made, and it changed the way I think about my research. After all, if I can’t explain what I’m doing, the dissertation I have spent five years writing will just collect dust on a bookshelf instead of contributing something useful to the world.
In an era of rising sea levels, ambitious plans for coastal protection works are emerging around the world. One such plan is the Delta21 project, proposed by group of Dutch coastal engineers and entrepreneurs. Their goal is to improve flood protection at the mouth of the Haringvliet estuary and develop a tidal power facility, all in one integrated project.
However, the law of unintended consequences often looms large in these sorts of massive infrastructure projects, particularly for environments as complex as estuaries. After a massive flood in 1953, the Dutch constructed the Delta Works, damming most of the estuaries in the southern half of the Netherlands. Prior to that, the Afsluitdijk was constructed across the Zuiderzee in the northern part of the country. These protection works have had dramatic consequences on the physical and ecological development of the Dutch coast, and many of my colleagues here have devoted their careers to analyzing the impact of these interventions.
But instead of just looking back and dissecting the successes and failures of 50 or 100 years past, what if we could also use our latest diagnostic tools for predicting the potential impact of bold future interventions? If the Delta21 plan goes ahead, how will the mouth and ebb-tidal delta of the Haringvliet estuary and surrounding coastline evolve? Will existing habitats (particularly in vital intertidal areas) be preserved, disappear, or even expand?
Today, Mayra Zaldivar Piña tackled these questions head on, and successfully defended her master’s thesis, “Stability of intertidal and subtidal areas after Delta21 plan“. I had the pleasure of co-supervising Mayra’s work throughout the last eight or so months, and am very proud of her. She embarked on a challenging modelling project and showed an exemplary critical scientific attitude. I was also so impressed with the persistence and tenacity she showed in doing nearly her entire project during the pandemic. Writing your thesis is a difficult and isolating experience at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Nonetheless, she kept at it and delivered an impressive thesis in the end!
Congratulations Mayra, and best of luck in the next steps of your career!
I am thrilled beyond measure to announce that the first paper of my forthcoming PhD dissertation, Sediment Connectivity: A Framework for Analyzing Coastal Sediment Transport Pathways, has finally been published (open-access) in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface!
What’s it about? As sand moves along coasts and through estuaries, the pathways it takes are determined by a complex combination of waves, tides, geology, and other environmental or human factors. These pathways are hard to analyze and predict using existing approaches, so we turn to the concept of connectivity.
What is connectivity? Connectivity represents the pathways that sediment takes as a series of nodes and links, much like in a subway or metro map (see here for a primer). This approach is well used in other scientific fields like neurology, oceanography, and fluvial geomorphology, but in our study we apply these techniques to coastal sediment dynamics.
So what? To show how the sediment connectivity approach can be used in practice, we map sediment pathways with it at Ameland Inlet, an estuary in the Netherlands. The statistics we compute using connectivity let us quantify and visualize these sediment pathways, which tells us new things about the coastal system. We can also use this approach to answer practical engineering questions, such as where to place sand nourishments for coastal protection. We hope to use sediment connectivity to predict the response of our coasts to climate change, and the human adaptations that these changes provoke.
It has been a long journey, beginning with The Magical Figure that Changed My Entire PhD and now culminating in this publication. I am especially indebted to my supervisors, Bram van Prooijen and Zheng Bing Wang, for their constant support. I am also grateful to my other co-authors, Edwin Elias from Deltares and Sean Vitousek at USGS, for seeing potential in this approach and really strengthening and clarifying my story. I was also blessed with curious and constructive reviewers who provided a much-needed non-engineering perspective on our work.
Now that this paper is out, the fun can really begin! I have lots of fun ideas for applying connectivity to other estuaries around the world including the Mouth of the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay. We are also in the process of developing new modelling tools that well help us better unravel how estuaries and coasts are connected. Stay tuned!
Pearson, S.G., van Prooijen, B.C., Elias, E.P.L, Vitousek, S., & Wang, Z.B. (2020). Sediment Connectivity: A Framework for Analyzing Coastal Sediment Transport Pathways. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. [Link]