GeoLog

geomorphology

Imaggeo on Mondays: Loch Coruisk – home of the wild Kelpie

Imaggeo on Mondays: Loch Coruisk – home of the wild Kelpie

On the south-western coast of the Isle of Skye, Scotland, lies Loch Coruisk, supposedly home of a water horse. At the southern end of this freshwater Loch, the Scavaig River discharges into a sea Loch, Loch na Cuilce. Loch Coruisk snuggles close to the center of the Cuillin Hills complex, younger than both the northern and southern formations of the Isle. At present, the neighbouring hills are dominated by Paleogene intrusive bytownite gabbros that are responsible for the jagged outline of the topography. Cuillin Hills forms the remains of an eroded magmatic chamber.

Description by Cedric Gillmann, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Back for the first time: measuring change at Narrabeen–Collaroy Beach

Back for the first time: measuring change at Narrabeen–Collaroy Beach

Narrabeen–Collaroy Beach in New South Wales, Australia, just north of Sydney, is home to one of the longest-running shoreline-measurement programmes in the world. With colleagues at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney, Eli Lazarus, an associate professor in geomorphology at the University of Southampton, UK, has been analysing over 40 years of data from Narrabeen–Collaroy to better understand how shorelines recover from major storm events.

In this blog post, Lazarus shares a glimpse of the programme’s history and describes his experience of visiting a field site that for him is both familiar and brand new.

“Want to see what an old GPS unit looks like after it’s been up and down the beach a thousand times?”

Mitchell Harley, a Scientia Fellow and coastal researcher at the UNSW Sydney Water Research Laboratory (WRL), in Manly Vale, Australia, handed me a battered, corroded, steel-cased receiver the size of a grapefruit. “It’s also seen a lot of Duct Tape.”

He loaded a carbon-fibre survey staff and a yellow Pelican case containing a new, a top-of-the-line Trimble GPS handset into the back of a WRL vehicle. With two visiting masters students – Tim van Dam from TU Delft, and Yann Larré from École Polytechnique – we set off on our afternoon excursion, to Narrabeen.

View of Narrabeen Beach, looking south from Narrabeen Headland. Credit: Eli Lazarus

Facing the open South Pacific, Narrabeen and Collaroy are the northern and southern halves of an embayed beach, a reach of sand framed at either end by rocky promontories, that extends approximately three-and-a-half kilometres between Narrabeen Headland and Long Reef Point. Narrabeen is the keystone of the Northern Beaches, a chain of sandy pockets defining the coastal peninsula north of Sydney. The beaches darken in colour with each embayment, from dun in the south to a reddish ochre in the north, representative of the ancient sandstone bedrock units in which they sit.

Narrabeen is a legendary surf break and home turf to a roll of world champions, where, to date, the locals have successfully prevented the installation of anything that resembles a surf cam. But the beach is also home to one of the longest-running and most complete beach-survey programmes in the world (Turner et al., Sci Data 2016).

In 1976, the renowned coastal scientist Andy Short, who used to live in Narrabeen, began the programme from the beach across the street from his house. He and family members, colleagues, friends, and volunteers diligently measured a set of cross-shore profiles along the full Narrabeen–Collaroy embayment every month for 30 years.

All long-term monitoring endeavours are labours of love. But frequent, detailed measurements of beach morphology, maintained consistently over long time scales, are exceptionally rare, and they offer essential quantitative insight into coastal events, changes, and cycles that occur more rapidly than most records tend to capture.

Harley took over the measurement programme in 2006, along with Ian Turner, who now directs the Water Research Lab, and recorded more than 120 monthly surveys of the full beach with a quad-bike Harley would trailer back and forth from Manly Vale.

Harley’s quad-bike – and shoreline-survey workhorse – at the UNSW Sydney Water Research Lab. Credit: Eli Lazarus

The Water Research Laboratory team has continued to experiment with different measurement methods for the Narrabeen–Collaroy system. Mounted on the top floor of the Flight Deck, a beachfront hotel where Narrabeen blends into Collaroy, is an array of five cameras, known as an Argus station, that takes time-averaged photos of the shoreline and surf zone. Tucked in among the cameras is a smoked-glass dome that looks like a space helmet: a lidar unit that uses a laser to measure wave swash and a cross-shore profile of beach elevation five times every second.

On our outing, Harley first drove us up Narrabeen Headland, to get an unobstructed southerly view of the bay. At the overlook was a stainless-steel post with a frame to hold a smartphone. This was the Narrabeen CoastSnap station.

In 2017, Harley, along with collaborators from the New South Wales State Government, launched the CoastSnap programme to collect crowd-sourced observations of beach dynamics (Harley et al., 2019). The process is simple: take a photo, post the image on social media with the station hashtag (#CoastSnapNarra, for example), and if you don’t post it right away, then write in the date and time of the image. With some clever analytical tricks, an algorithm finds the shoreline in your photo. Harley installed the first CoastSnap station at Manly Beach, above the Manly Surf Life Saving Club. There are now more than 35 CoastSnap stations in nine countries around the world.

Harley pointed out the various permanent features the algorithm uses to identify the shoreline position in every #CoastSnapNarra photo: an inlet hazard sign, the corners of prominent buildings in the foreground and distance. “We get about an image a day from people up here,” he said. Watching a sparse line-up of surfers work a peeling break at Narrabeen Inlet, we stood eating steak pies from The Upper Crust – like the surfers, another local institution.

Pies finished, we looped back down to the north end of the beach and assembled the GPS. The four of us would take turns walking the GPS receiver down the five main cross-shore transects still sampled at Narrabeen and Collaroy every month, and the three visitors would get our names added to the dataset’s long list of contributors.

Harley, Larré (holding GPS) and van Dam working through a beach profile. Credit: Eli Lazarus

In a reversal of cart and horse, I had written a scientific article about Narrabeen but never seen it. In fact, I was there in Sydney to visit people I had co-authored with but never met in person.

Earlier this year, Harley, Chris Blenkinsopp (of Bath University in the UK, and a former postdoc at WRL), Turner, and I published a paper in the EGU journal Earth Surface Dynamics about the information that shoreline records retain or destroy regarding the environmental conditions that shape them (Lazarus et al., 2019).

Extreme storm events, for example, can inscribe dramatic changes in the shape of a coastline. A detailed, high-frequency record of shoreline position presumably should reflect something about the magnitude of those events. But sedimentary systems can be very effective at obscuring or erasing their own histories, and not all evidence of conditions that impact a shoreline gets preserved. This phenomenon is known as ‘signal shredding’. The exceptional data catalogue for Narrabeen–Collaroy enabled us to pursue the first empirical test of signal shredding at a sandy beach, an idea I’d puzzled over since geomorphic signal-shredding was first described for other sediment-transport systems almost ten years ago (Jerolmack & Paola, 2010).

Among our survey crew, I asked to take Profile 4, near the middle of the embayment, because that was the record I had used the most when working through the signal-shredding analysis. To me, Profile 4 seemed to best capture, in a single line, the spatially variable character of the beach overall.

As we leapfrogged our way south, the beach profile became steeper and narrower. Harley mentioned an article that he had published with Turner and Short (Harley et al., 2015) that described, among other patterns at Narrabeen, a spatial pattern in the beach slope. If one end of the beach was steeply sloping toward the water, then the other end would be flat. The steep stretches of the beach tended to be narrow, and the flat stretches tended to be wide. Under certain wave conditions, the narrow, steep end of the would switch to being wide and flat, and vice versa – a pattern typical of embayed beaches called ‘rotation’.

As Harley described the slope pattern, the observation struck me as the kind that comes from investing time at a field site: the intuition internalised by surveying the beach over and over again in the seat of a quad-bike, from tipping sideways in the steeps and tracing the long meanders of the shoreline across the flats.

Standing astride the sharp break in beach slope at Collaroy, looking south toward Long Reef. Credit: Eli Lazarus

We finished the day with a walk around Long Reef, at Collaroy, looking back into the embayment we’d spent the afternoon traversing. Hang-gliders drifted in slow figure-eights above us. I was headed back to the UK the next day. There is more work to be done at Narrabeen, for sure, and we talked about what’s coming next: algorithms for predicting shoreline position (Davidson et al., 2017), fresh insights into beach recovery after major storms (Phillips et al., 2019), identifying shorelines from catalogues of satellite imagery (Vos et al., 2019). We talked about possible funding avenues to keep fuelling our collaboration.

The wind picked up, and the waves set to work rearranging the shoreline we had just measured.

Day’s end and hang-gliders at Long Reef, looking northwest toward Collaroy and Narrabeen. Credit: Eli Lazarus

By Eli Lazarus, University of Southampton, UK

Dr Eli Lazarus (@envidynxlab) is an Associate Professor in Geomorphology in the School of Geography & Environmental Science at the University of Southampton, UK.

 

Could beavers be responsible for long-debated deposits?

Could beavers be responsible for long-debated deposits?

Following her presentation at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, I caught up with geomorphologist and environmental detective Annegret Larsen from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, about beavers, baffling sediments and a case she’s been solving for the past seven years.

Back in 2012 the German geomorphology community was seriously debating the source of buried black soils, a stark black layer of sediment found in floodplain deposits all over Europe. Such dark sediments are usually associated with organic, carbon-rich materials, like peat. But unlike the other dark deposits, these soils are low in organic carbon, leading to a wide spectrum of ideas about their origin.

“They’re almost everywhere, and many people have had big fights about them and where they come from. Fire might have played a role, or human impact, or a rising water table associated with changes in climate,” explains Larsen.

The soils themselves are quite variable. Some deposits are quite muddy, while some trap fragments of long-dead plants. “They look a little like the relic of a swamp, containing grassy vegetation, sticks, leaves and little nuts, and they’re mainly black,” said Larsen. At the University of Lausanne, Switzerland and the University of Manchester, UK, she and her colleagues have been studying the composition and chemistry of black soils in an effort to understand how they formed.

Recently, Larsen has uncovered a possible connection between the black soil deposits and European beaver habitats. She presented her findings at the annual EGU meeting earlier this month.

The accused: a European beaver. Credit: Per Harald Olson via Wikimedia Commons

The idea began to take shape while Larsen was driving within the Spessart region of Switzerland. During her travels, she had found the soil situated in environments where beaver populations had been dwelling for some 25 years.

“There are huge swamps, what we call beaver meadows. And the vegetation communities are just like the ones found in those deposits,” said Larsen.

This discovery led her to develop a field experiment with the aim to determine whether beavers could be responsible for these puzzling black deposits.

“It’s like a big mystery for me. To find out if the black floodplain soil really come from when there was a widespread beaver population, before humans eradicated the beaver, I need to understand what the beaver does nowadays, and that’s how I started the project.”

Larsen thinks the beaver-created landscapes change with age, and she has been keeping a close watch on four sites across Switzerland and Germany, where beaver communities have been established for up to 25 years.

The long-toothed mammals have striking impacts on the landscape, which differ depending on where they build their dam. Upstream architecture results in beaver cascades, a series of closely packed ponds, each separated by a beaver dam. Down river, efforts go into one ‘megadam’ that stretches across a slow, meandering section of the stream and cause it to spill out into a large swampy floodplain.

The cascades, Larsen describes, are pretty dynamic. “Sediment gets trapped behind each dam, then they get strained, breach and break, causing sediment to flush downstream. It’s collected by the next dam and that then overtops and then that breaks” and the process starts all over again.

One of Larsen’s field sites: the Distelbach beaver reach. Credit: Annegret Larsen

Beaver meadows begin as large expanses of water, ponds teeming with semi-aquatic vegetation. Over time, fine sediment gathers in the ponds. As the sediment builds up, the area becomes a swamp – a patchwork of shrubs, trees, running water and tough, grassy plants. “You definitely get an explosion in diversity, but it’s a complete change, the area becomes a wetland,” adds Larsen.

And the wetland contains plants that resemble those found in the buried floodplain soils.

“For me, it’s fascinating to think about how all our streams would have looked with a beaver in there: before humans impacted those streams, before humans eradicated the beaver, and before [humans] settled there. There must have been beavers everywhere. Every stream would have been a beaver stream. And a beaver stream looks totally different [to what we see today].”

With the deposits all over Europe, it isn’t hard to imagine that, in years past, beavers shaped the streams, swamps and landscapes of the continent. It’s feasible that these regions might have been swampy landscapes at one point in history.

So, are the beavers behind the black soils? “I think we’re on a good path to contribute to this discussion. It’s at least as reasonable as fire and climate,” she replies.

Larsen makes a strong case, but the jury, it seems, is still out.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant

Imaggeo on Mondays: The Henry Mountains, living textbook of modern geomorphology

Imaggeo on Mondays: The Henry Mountains, living textbook of modern geomorphology

In 1877, the United States Geological Survey published a report “On the Geology of the Henry Mountains”, on the small range of peaks in southern Utah, pictured here. Up to that point, little scientific study had been made of the unassuming peaks, but the author of the report, one Grove Karl Gilbert, not only detailed the structure and mineralogy of the landscape, but in doing so also laid the foundations for much of modern geomorphology.

While beautiful, the range is isolated and of limited economic value; Gilbert himself notably wrote that “No one but a geologist will ever profitably seek out the Henry Mountains”, while the name given to the range by the Navajo Nation is Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní, literally meaning “mountain whose name is missing”. And yet, the wildness of the range is sufficient attraction for some!

by Robert Emberson

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.