Do you ever think about the swirling patterns in your cappuccino as you stir your spoon around, the brown coffee folding in past the white foam? And do you ever think about sediment transport as you do it? Just me? Ok, never mind…
I had the great privilege of hanging out in New Orleans this past week, being a sand nerd with four hundred of my fellow sand nerds at the Coastal Sediments conference. In between jazz sets at the Spotted Cat, we shared our latest ideas about coastal dynamics, built new collaborations, and rekindled old pre-pandemic friendships. My contribution this year was an attempt to bring the science behind cappuccino coffee swirls to coastal sediment transport.
Mangrove forests protect tropical coastlines around the world from the effects of waves, in addition to providing valuable habitat for countless species. As such, their preservation and restoration is a key element of many plans for improving coastal resilience against flooding and erosion in the face of climate change. However, you can’t *just plant* a mangrove forest anywhere – mangroves are extremely picky, dancing on the edge of the intertidal zone where they get just wet enough but never too wet for too long. They also need safe, stable shorelines for their seedlings to take root and grow stronger, without too many waves and with just the right sort of muddy conditions to make a comfortable home.
Mangroves drop their seeds (called propagules) in the water, which then float around with the currents for days to weeks until they find a suitable home. But which pathways do these mangrove seedlings take as they float along the coast? Are those the same pathways that sand and mud take? These are questions that we need to answer in order to make better decisions about mangrove restoration. To get to the bottom of this, we recruited Femke Bisschop.
Keeping Dutch feet dry is mainly done by placing piles of sand along the coast as “nourishments”. These nourishments build out the beaches and dunes to act as a protective buffer against storms. However, as was recently pointed out by an official at Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch water ministry, the Hamvraag or “bacon question” is still “where the heck does all that sand actually go?”
Knowing where nourished sand goes is important for understanding the ecological impact of nourishments, as well as their effectiveness. If you want your sand to reach a certain destination, how much of it actually gets there and how quickly?
How do sand and mud move around on our coasts? This is a question that we need to answer in order to sustainably manage coastlines in the face of sea level rise and climate change. To do so, we use a combination of field measurements and computer simulations at Ameland Inlet in the Netherlands. In the course of my PhD we developed several new methods, including morphodynamic mapping techniques, a sediment composition index (SCI) derived from optical and acoustic measurements, techniques for sediment tracing, the sediment connectivity framework, and a Lagrangian sediment transport model (SedTRAILS). Together, these approaches reveal new knowledge about our coasts which can be used for managing these complex natural systems.
That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s break it down and try to explain what I have been doing with sand for the last half-decade…
In the past few weeks, Vancouver and the BC Lower Mainland have suffered not just one but three record-breaking rainstorms, a succession of ”atmospheric rivers” that dumped several hundred millimetres of rain. Highways washed out and disappeared, and numerous communities were flooded. This resulted in an enormous quantity of sediment reaching the sea via the Fraser and other local rivers. But where exactly does the sediment that’s already in the sea around Vancouver go? How has that changed in the past few hundred years since Europeans colonized the area? To get to the bottom of this, we enlisted Carlijn Meijers.
Last week, Carlijn successfully defended her thesis, ”Sediment transport pathways in Burrard Inlet”. To answer these questions, she created a detailed hydrodynamic and sediment transport model of Burrard Inlet and Georgia Strait in D-Flow FM. She then used the SedTRAILS model that we have developed to visualize sediment transport pathways.
From these models, Carlijn showed that sediment transport is largely controlled by flow through the First and Second Narrows (where the Lion’s Gate and Ironworker’s Memorial bridges cross). As the tide comes in, the water shoots through these narrow passages at speeds of up to 2 m/s and comes out the far side as a jet, spiraling off into eddies. The tide then goes out and the same happens in reverse, with water shooting out the opposite side.
Due to the sheltered nature of the inlet, waves have only a minor role in sediment transport. However, given the intensity of the tides and the great depths of Burrard Inlet (especially the Indian Arm fjord to the north), most sediment liberated by erosion tends to get carried away from shore and is essentially lost from the coastal sediment budget.
Another key point of her project was to investigate how land use changes and other human effects (e.g., damming rivers, port construction) have changed Burrard Inlet. Using the model, Carlijn showed that these changes to the inlet have shrunken its tidal prism, influencing the currents and sediment transport patterns.
These changes are especially evident when we compare satellite photos from the present day with the oldest available images from the 1940s.
Carlijn wrote an excellent report and capped it all off with one of the best master’s thesis defenses that I’ve seen in a long while. She also handled the cultural context of the project with great respect, interest, and sensitivity. If anyone reading this is looking to recruit a new engineer/researcher with heaps of potential, I cannot recommend Carlijn enough.
All in all, this was a fascinating project and one very close to my heart — I was born in the Vancouver area and was excited to see how the SedTRAILS model could be used in my original backyard. Let’s keep the Delft-Vancouvercollaborations going!
Ebb-tidal deltas are notoriously unpredictable. Battered about by waves and tides, their ever-shifting sands can be a royal pain in the arse for everyone from coastal residents to pirates. I have spent most of the past five years trying to identify the pathways that sand takes across these deltas as part of my PhD. However, the holy grail of ebb-tidal delta research is to take that one step further and make accurate morphodynamic predictions of their evolution on timescales of decades.
This past year, Denzel Harlequin took up the challenge, and I am pleased as punch to announce that last week he successfully defended his master’s thesis, ”Morphodynamic Modelling of the Ameland Ebb-Tidal Delta”. This is a really tricky problem to solve because of the complexity of the processes that need to be simulated.
What’s cool about Denzel’s work is that brings us closer to good morphodynamic predictions than we were before. Furthermore, where the predictions deviate from reality, he illuminates the areas where we still need to make improvements — specifically, our representation of wave-driven transports. Denzel also shows how the location of a sand nourishment can have major knock-on effects on the evolution of the ebb-tidal delta.
Denzel is a very talented modeller and I am delighted that he has joined us as a new colleague in the Applied Morphodynamics department at Deltares. I look forward to many more great collaborations to come!
We forgave Bagnold everything for the way he wrote about dunes. “The grooves and the corrugated sand resemble the hollow of the roof of a dog’s mouth.” That was the real Bagnold, a man who would put his inquiring hand into the jaws of a dog. – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Ralph Bagnold, widely considered one of the godfathers of sediment transport, was a soldier in the British army who spent much of the Second World War scouting around in the Libyan desert. In the process, he learned much about the dynamics of sand dunes, and formed the basis for many theories that are still in use today for explaining how sediment is blown around by wind or water.
This week I am proud of our very own up-and-coming Bagnold, Charlotte Uphues, who successfully defended her thesis, Coastal Aeolian Sediment Transport in an Active Bed Surface Layer, on Thursday. Charlotte did a fantastic job of designing and carrying out her own super cool field experiments, using tracer sediment to estimate aeolian (wind-blown) sediment transport on a beach here in Holland. As the dunes of the Netherlands are a key component to Dutch coastal defenses against flooding, it is essential that we understand better how they evolve by improving our abilities to predict aeolian transport.
I would elaborate a bit more about her findings, but Charlotte will be submitting her thesis for publication in a journal soon, so it will remain under wraps for now. Stay tuned, I don’t think we’ve heard the last from Charlotte!
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 research 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!
San Francisco Bay is a massive estuary, with over six million people living nearby. In addition to San Francisco, Silicon Valley sits on its shores. Some of the biggest tech companies in the world like Google and Facebook have their head offices right next to the Bay. For over 150 years, the ecological health of the bay has deteriorated, in part due to land reclamations and contaminated sediment from gold mining. The dynamics of San Francisco thus have a huge economic, social, and environmental impact.
Laurie’s work focused on calibrating and improving a sediment transport model of the bay, in order to track the pathways of fine sediment (i.e., mud). She worked with a notoriously fickle model (DELWAQ) and succeeded in greatly improving its calibration.
Another cool thing about her work is that Laurie was the first person to apply the coastal sediment connectivity framework that I have been developing! She was able to use this to identify key transport pathways and critical locations in the bay. It was extremely helpful for my research, as it gives us a proof of concept that our framework is applicable to multiple sites and can tell us something useful.
Her work was also accepted for a presentation at the NCK Days conference, which was meant to be held this week in Den Helder, but was cancelled due to ongoing societal chaos. Great job, Laurie!
It was Christmas 2016, and I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew. I’m not talking about turkey, though. Four months into my PhD, I was feeling completely overwhelmed and starting to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
The goal of my project is to identify the pathways that sand takes as it moves in and around the Wadden Islands in the northern part of the Netherlands. Since the Dutch coast has a chronic erosion problem, accurately accounting for the whereabouts of their sand is a matter of national security. Right now, the Dutch deal with a deficit in their coastal sediment budget by adding more sand or “nourishing” wherever there is a shortfall.
Knowing when, where, and how much sand to add is especially challenging around these islands. Here, the persistent push and pull of the tide competes with the chaotic brutality of the waves to move sediment in complex patterns. These patterns are hard to predict with our usual box of tools, so we planned to throw everything we had at the problem: state-of-the-art field measurements, sophisticated computer models, reams of historical data, and a support team of experts from across the Netherlands. As PhD students go, I felt [and still feel!] pretty darn lucky to be a part of such a large and well-conceived project.
The Spaghetti Problem
However, as I started reading more and more about my topic, my initial enthusiasm began to wane. I was floored by just how much research had already been done on what I had thought was a fairly specific niche. The Dutch have been scrutinizing their coast for centuries, and to my inexperienced eyes, it seemed like they had already thought of everything.
There was another problem: at the end of almosteverystudyaboutsedimentpathways, there seems to be a diagram summarizing all the paths with lots of curvy arrows flying all over the place. This veritable plate of spaghetti makes for a nice conceptual drawing, but how can you statistically compare two plates of spaghetti with one another? A “past spaghetti” and a “future spaghetti”, to help understand potential responses to climate change? A “Dutch spaghetti” and an “American spaghetti”, to make my findings more general and useful for other places? If I was going to get anywhere with my PhD, I needed a spaghetti system.
By Christmas, I felt like I was in a weird purgatory between “it’s all been done before! I’ll never come up with anything original!” and “this is insurmountably complex and you’re foolish to think you’ll ever figure this out”. And just a dash of “how-did-I-get-here?” imposter syndrome, for good measure. I spent much of my holiday feeling overwhelmed and inadequate, like I couldn’t possibly live up to my own expectations, or (what I thought to be) the expectations of those around me.
But: new year, new start. On January 11th, 2017, my first day back in the Netherlands from holidays, a paper about coral reef hydrodynamics popped up in my Google Scholar alerts. At that time, I was also finishing up a paper about predicting floods on tropical islands, and I liked to keep an eye on the latest developments in that topic.
“A coupled wave-hydrodynamic model of an atoll with high friction: Mechanisms for flow, connectivity, and ecological implications“. Sounds promising, I like wave models.
In this paper, they wanted to understand how waves and ocean currents move water around Palmyra Atoll, a coral island in the middle of the Pacific. Coral reefs all around the world are in big trouble, and to help them we must first understand the physical processes governing the life and death of corals.
This was all very interesting stuff, though not particularly relevant to my research about flood prediction, since they seemed more focused on the ecological impact of their results. It was seemingly even less relevant to my PhD topic on Dutch sand- stay focused and stop wasting your time, Stuart! But then I turned the page and there it was:
The Magical Figure That Singlehandedly Changed My PhD…
Essentially, the authors had summarized the pathways that coral larvae can take around an island in a mathematically elegant way. This was pretty much identical to the goal of my PhD, if you substitute coral larvae for sand, and an idyllic Pacific island for a stormy estuary in Holland. They did it with a concept called “connectivity”, and it became immediately apparent that I had some homework to do.
So what the heck is connectivity?
So what exactly do they mean by connectivity, and how are we meant to interpret that magical diagram? Let’s start at the top. The upper panel is what we call an “adjacency matrix”, but you can think of it just like one of those mileage charts that you sometimes see in the corner of highway maps.
Instead of looking at the distance between two points like in a mileage chart, the authors of the reef paper consider the likelihood of water travelling from one point to another. Darker squares show a higher chance of connection, and lighter squares, a lower chance. For instance, if we look at the first column, water is more likely to flow from the point they call “WT FR NW” to point “WT W” than it is to flow to “WT FR SW”.
The second panel shows the same information as the matrix, but this time actually showing the connections on a map – a “network diagram”. The thickness of the blue lines on the network diagram indicate how strong a connection between two points is. If all this seems rather familiar, then that’s probably because you’ve already met our network diagram’s more famous cousin, the transit map:
The more I read, the more excited I became, and the more vital it seemed for our field to catch up. Connectivity could help us quantify and bring order to the chaotic spaghetti churned out by our models and measurements – if we could figure out how to adapt it.
The course of my PhD was changed instantly with the discovery of that figure. Not only did connectivity provide a potentially useful tool, but it jolted me out of my funk and got me excited about my PhD again. It was an important finding for my research but not a “eureka moment” where everything was suddenly solved- far from it. It has been a long uphill slog since then, but with the help of some very clever people, I think we have almost reached our first milestone. We presented our early findings at a conference in 2017, and right now we’re in the final stages of preparing a scientific article about our ideas. That paper will then have to survive the woodchipper of peer-review, so it may still be many months before my work sees the light of day. But I remain hopeful.
Would I have stumbled upon connectivity eventually, had I not seen The Magic Figure? Probably not if I had only stuck to reading papers about coastal sediment transport. This finding has shaped my attitude towards coastal engineering research- I believe that the next advances in our field will not come from developing a new bedload equation, but from adopting new tools and techniquesfrom other disciplines. Not that we don’t need better bedload equations – I just don’t think I’m the guy to do it, and I think that we could all benefit from looking over the fence at our neighbours in other fields from time to time. As William Zinsser nicely put it:
“Think flexibly about the field you’re writing about. Its frontiers may no longer be where they were the last time you looked.”