Ameland Datapalooza!

Check out our new paper here!

Three years ago, I experienced one of the highlights of my professional career so far. Alongside researchers from 3 universities, the Dutch government, and several other institutions, we carried out a 40-day field measurement campaign at Ameland Inlet in the north of the Netherlands. We deployed several frames loaded up like Christmas trees with every instrument imaginable: ADVs and ADCPs to measure waves and currents, LISSTs and OBSs to measure suspended sediment, a YSI multiprobe to measure salinity and other water quality indicators, and even a 3D sonar to track the migration of ripples along the seabed.

One of the five measurement frames that we deployed in Ameland back in Fall 2017. It was stacked full of instruments to measure the waves, currents, suspended sand and mud, salinity, ripples, and more.

Four of our five frames survived the relentless ebb and flow of the tide, and even two major storms (one of which left me stranded in Germany after the wind blew down all the overhead train power lines between Berlin and Amsterdam!). In the end, we obtained enough data to keep me busy for probably 3 PhDs, if not the rest of my career. This is just as well, since that last frame was buried in the storm, and based on our understanding of the local dynamics, it will likely re-emerge in another few decades, just in time for my retirement! I look forward to sharing my other findings with you here in the next few months!

Although it used to be the norm for scientists to squirrel away their data, there is an increasing movement towards open accessibility of research data. This improves transparency and accountability in the scientific process, and opens up new opportunities for collaboration. The data we collected is now available in its entirety here on the 4TU web portal or on Rijkswaterstaat’s interactive web viewer.

However, there is a lot of data – I mean A LOT! To help researchers interpret the contents of this database, we prepared an overview paper, which was finally published in the journal of Earth System Science Data! It is also accompanied by a more detailed report, which gets into the nitty-gritty details we didn’t have room to describe in the paper. Nobody likes to read a phonebook-sized report, but it’s nice to have the information there for the few brave souls who do want to comb through our dataset.

Sailing across the Vlie ebb-tidal delta on our way to retrieve the measurement frames at the end of the field campaign.

It was all a huge team effort, as evidenced by the 20+ co-authors. My contribution to this paper focused on the processing of the LISST and YSI multiprobe data, which tell us about the size of particles floating through the water, and how salty that water is. I also designed the maps. As a kid, I loved to read and draw maps, and I think that 7-year-old Stuart would have been tickled to know that he would still be dabbling in cartography all these years later.

As the research in the rest of my PhD (and beyond!) will continue to focus on the fruits of this measurement campaign, I am very keen to work together and collaborate with other researchers who have an interest in this dataset. Please get in touch if you are interested!

Sand: Nourishment at Ameland

The main protective barrier for the Netherlands against the threat of flooding from the sea is a row of colossal sand dunes and wide beaches that stretch the length of their coast.  However, that barrier is not completely natural —  since the Dutch coast is in a constant state of erosion, the sand in their coastal zone has to be continually replenished.  This replenishment takes the form of nourishments, which are essentially just massive piles of sand placed on beaches, dunes, or just offshore.  The Dutch are lucky, since the bottom of the North Sea is covered in sand for hundreds of kilometers in every direction, meaning that there is a ready supply available for this purpose.

Although we still have plenty to learn about how to construct these nourishments effectively and in an environmentally friendly way, we are starting to get the hang of it — at least for long, straight, sandy coastlines like in Holland.  However, this all gets a bit trickier when we turn our attention to the Wadden Islands dotting the northern coast of the Netherlands.  These little islands sit between the stormy North Sea and the shallow Wadden Sea, a large estuary whose ecological value is unmatched in the Netherlands.

The coast of these islands is punctuated by a series of inlets connecting the two seas.  Chaos reigns at these inlets, where strong tidal currents pass in and out, clashing with waves and whisking sandy shoals in and out of existence in unpredictable ways.  This makes the inlets treacherous for ships, but also a challenge to simulate with our computer models and design nourishments for.

How, then, are are we meant to nourish the coast of these islands?  We want to keep their inhabitants (and those on the nearby mainland) safe from flooding, but also need to be careful about inadvertently disrupting the vital ecological habitat of the Wadden Sea.

To answer that question, the Dutch government initiated the Kustgenese or Coastal Genesis project. In collaboration with several Dutch universities, companies, and research institutes, they set out to better understand how these tidal inlets work, and whether it is possible to effectively nourish them.  The project focuses on Ameland Inlet, which is located between the islands of Ameland and Terschelling.

 

My PhD project is but a very tiny piece of the very large Kustgenese pie.  My goal is to figure out specifically how the size of sand grains affects the paths that they take around tidal inlets.  It has been the dream job for someone who has loved playing in the sand ever since he was a little kid.  As a result, it has entailed a lot of time at my computer and in the laboratory, investigating the characteristics of the sand in Ameland inlet (that’s also why I have so many pictures of sand on this blog- we have a really cool microscope!).  It is very fine sand and would be absolutely perfect for squidging your toes through on a hot day — if it weren’t at the bottom of the sea, that is:

NativeSediment
Native sediment from Ameland ebb-tidal delta

In the spirit of ‘why not?’, the Dutch government decided that the best way to test whether nourishments would be effective in this environment was to just go ahead and try one out last year.  They dredged up 5 million cubic metres of sand (that’s enough to fill 3 Skydomes, for anyone reading this back home in Toronto) and placed them just outside the inlet.  A few months ago, one of the Dutch government officials showed up at a meeting with a “present” for me… some sand from the nourishment!

NourishmentSediment
Nourishment sediment dredged from offshore and placed on Ameland ebb-tidal delta.

Needless to say, I was very excited.  At first glance, it appears quite similar to the native sediment, so that means it should behave in a similar manner.  Time will tell how the nourishment evolves- we are watching very closely!