Sediment Pathways in Vancouver

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.

Modelled sediment transport pathways in Burrard Inlet. The red arrows highlight key patterns in the SedTRAILS particle trajectories. Burrard inlet is characterized by strong flows through the narrowest points of the fjord, and large eddies in the wider areas. Source: Meijers (2021).

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.

Conceptual diagram showing the dominant sediment pathways in the Inner Harbour. Source: Meijers (2021).

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.

Comparison of the present-day shoreline with the high and low tide lines from 1792, prior to colonization by European settlers. The Second Narrows are so narrow because they were formed by the delta of Seymour River and Lynn Creek. The area has since been dredged and walled off for the construction of the port and to create log booming grounds. Source: Meijers (2021).

These changes are especially evident when we compare satellite photos from the present day with the oldest available images from the 1940s.

Second Narrows in the 1940s and 2021. Please forgive my crappy georeferencing, I eyeballed it. Source: City of Vancouver and Google Earth.

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-Vancouver collaborations going!

Sand: UBC Cliffs/Wreck Beach

Vancouver holds a special place in my heart.  I was born out there, and even though we moved away when I was very young, it has continued to re-emerge in my life.  In 2011, I moved out there after a difficult breakup and the city breathed new life back into me.  While there, I discovered a new vocation in hydraulic modelling for predicting floods, something that I am still doing to this day.  I have returned to Vancouver a number of times since then, since my brother and a surprising number of my closest friends have ended up out there.  I hope to return this September for a wedding!

Coal Harbour, Vancouver.

One of my favourite parts of Vancouver is walking its coastline.  The city was built on the edge of a large fjord, but has a variety of coastal landscapes, from towering cliffs to sandy beaches, mud flats to salt marshes, and of course a number of urbanized shorelines.

Even though I am in the Netherlands now, I am trying to keep my Vancouver connection alive through my work.  Last year, I co-supervised a fantastic group of TU Delft students who worked with Kerr Wood Leidal and the University of British Columbia (UBC) to investigate the erosion of the Point Grey cliffs, on which UBC is situated.

Eroding cliffs of Point Grey.  The University of British Columbia is at the top of the cliff, so naturally they are concerned with understanding the rate of erosion and means of slowing it.

The project was an interesting one, as the students (representing three different countries) tried to bring their lessons learned about Dutch coastal engineering to Canada.  Canadian coastal zone management is much more fragmented than in the Netherlands, where everything is more or less centrally controlled by the federal government.  The entire Dutch coastline is also incredibly well-monitored, with high resolution bathymetry taken every few years, and with countless other measurements available.  Acquiring the data necessary to perform a coastal engineering study in Vancouver required contacting dozens of different sources and dealing with numerous agencies at multiple levels of government.

Sand from Wreck Beach.  It is quite coarse and angular in shape, and the green and red tints are quite nice. Being glacial in origin, these sand grains have likely been bulldozed by ice or carried by meltwater from far and wide.  This accounts for the variety of particles we see.

In the end, the students looked at a number of possible solutions for slowing the coastal retreat, including sand nourishments and revetments.  One of the most intriguing concepts that they explored was the idea of a clam garden, a traditional approach from the First Nations people living on the BC coastline.   Originally intended for aquaculture, clam gardens are usually small rock walls placed along gravel beaches, behind which where clam-friendly sand or mud can accumulate.  However, this approach could have added benefits for coastal protection by attenuating waves and encouraging the deposition of sediment.  In many ways, it is not that different from the Dutch using brushwood dams to reclaim land in the Netherlands or my colleagues using similar structures to rebuild mangrove habitats.

In Canada, the involvement of First Nations in coastal planning is becoming increasingly important (as I think it should be!), and there is a lot that science and engineering can benefit from their traditional forms of knowledge and experience.  Building with nature instead of fighting against it has recently become a popular design philosophy in coastal engineering, and who better to have as allies in that task than the people who have been living with and building with nature already for centuries?

World War II-era bunker on Wreck Beach overlooking the Georgia Strait, with North Vancouver in the background.


The Delft-Vancouver connection continues: right now we have a group of five students investigating coastal protection solutions with Kerr Wood Leidal and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.  They have already been out there for a month, and I am excited to see what they come up with!

Sunset over the Spanish Banks, just around the corner from UBC.