The cliffs of the East Riding of Yorkshire, where the plain of Holderness meets the North Sea, provide an example of coastal erosion on an observable scale. Although the situation can vary considerably from place to place, from year to year, and within the year, the overall loss of land through cliff recession along this coast is often quoted as being one of the fastest in Europe.
On the chart, erosion rates are shown opposite the locations to which they relate.
an ice age legacy
In order to understand the causes for such rapid erosion it is necessary to travel back in time, to what is generally known as the ice age.
An ice age is not a single event that comes and goes but consists of major advances and retreats, with fluctuations, oscillations, and with prolonged periods of little change. Individual events are measured in thousands or tens of thousands of years.
During the most recent advance, a lobe of ice crept south along the dry bed of the North Sea at the east of England (global sea levels were low because of the volume of water bound up in ice sheets). The coastline around the mouth of the Humber was determined at the time by the outcropping of a great thickness of chalk that underlies the North Sea basin.
The glacial body grew and expanded laterally, extending as far as the chalk cliffs, where the higher ground stopped a further spread of ice. Temperatures eventually rose and the ice melted. A vast amount of material picked up and carried within the ice, or pushed by it, was left behind. Geologists refer to material deposited in this way as till, once called boulder clay.
With the ice gone, the North Sea began to return. Between present-day Britain and mainland Europe lay Doggerland. Over the course of a few thousand years the post-glacial territory was eroded and inundated, a process doubtlessly hastened at one stage by a massive tsunami caused by an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway.
A rising sea level created an inlet between the east coast and the Dogger Hills (now submerged as the Dogger Bank). If a start to the story of East Yorkshire’s coastal erosion is required, then the broadening of that sea inlet would serve. The North Sea continued to regain its earlier domain. In the soft tills of Holderness, an area essentially borrowed from the sea, the process goes on.
Land will be consumed at a significant rate for as long as the tides are able to wash against the foot of an unprotected cliff. At current erosion rates, and with no other influences, the sea will reach the former cliffs of chalk in about 10,000 years.
Coastal erosion is usually regarded as being about losses at the cliff top, where the impact on agricultural resources, on homes, businesses and amenities, is directly felt.
For the most part, cliff recession is an outcome of what is happening on the beach. Tides carry water in across the sands and out again, nominally twice a day. Sea current flows north to south. The result is an overall movement of beach material in the same direction. This is called longshore drift.
Waves arrive at the beach at an angle such that there is a differential along their length in terms of distance travelled and energy released. The beach responds by forming into curved segments hundreds of metres long, each extending from near the cliff to the low water line.
As a segment pulls away from the cliff, beach level is significantly reduced, perhaps down to the clay platform, allowing the sea easier access to the base of the cliff. Around two-thirds of cliff loss results from areas of depleted beach behind segments.
Because segments move, or migrate, southwards as a consequence of longshore drift, the potential for increased erosion at the cliff top moves at roughly the same pace.
it’s not only the sea
migration chart (advanced)
Of the 63 kilometres of coast from Sewerby to Neck of Spurn, a little over 10 kilometres (about 16%) may be regarded as defended.
Where longshore drift is restricted, as at a protective structure, then a stretch of following beach is starved of material, much of it diverted out to sea, and the cliffs are exposed to greater attack by the waves. This is called the terminal groyne effect.
In the chart at the top of the page, it can be seen that rates of erosion are higher immediately to the south of Bridlington, Hornsea, and Withernsea, places protected by seawalls. The situation also applies downdrift of other types of defence, at Mappleton, Barmston, Ulrome, Skipsea, and Easington.
Another consideration is that the cliffs themselves represent a supply of beach material, one that is effectively cut off behind a protective barrier.
Any proposal to limit cliff erosion at a particular location has to be viewed with a mind to cost, typically thousands of pounds per metre for rock armour, and the near certainty that loss of cliff will increase elsewhere as a consequence.
terminal groyne effect
Throughout the centuries, land taken by the sea has meant the removal of numerous communities. The first ‘erosion map’ to name and propose sites for these appears in Thomas Sheppard (1912), The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast. A modern rendering is presented at erosion map.
Three glacial tills (or ‘members’) make up the Holderness Formation. Resting on the chalk bedrock is the Basement Till. This dates from a previous, more extensive glacial period of 350,000-128,000 years ago. At the coast, which to all intents provides a cross-section through material left by ice, the Basement Till is (sometimes) exposed north of Bridlington and at Dimlington High Land.
Skipsea Till, from the most recent glaciation, runs the entire coastline and accounts for most of the cliff. Towards the southern end, between Aldbrough and Easington, Withernsea Till sits above the Skipsea Till and for a distance is the dominant unit.
The glacier which delivered the two main tills is considered composite or two-tier in that the ice originated from two sources: north and north-west. Both flows are believed to have moved together, one partially overriding the other, though there could have been a readvance. Whichever the case, each flow carried its own defining till.
Until the mid-1970s, Skipsea Till was referred to as Drab Till or Clay, and Withernsea Till as Purple. There had also been a Hessle Till but this was successfully argued to be the surface layers of Skipsea and Withernsea tills subjected to weathering over thousands of years.
Within the tills and between them are pockets and beds of sands, silts and gravels – especially at Dimlington High Land – as well as small and occasionally larger boulders, known as erratics, together with fossil fragments.
cliff heights (coordinates spreadsheet)
The earliest Ordnance Survey maps record the coast as it was around 1850. Later surveys allowed for estimation of land loss by comparing changes in cliff line positions. An idea of the technique is possible from overlay maps.
Actual linear measurement, rather than approximations from maps, became possible in 1951 by the siting of a series of erosion monitoring posts along the coast, with a few more added later. However, results were not gathered for the entire length of coast at any one time, nor on any regular basis.
In 1999, GPS (Global Positioning System) technology was introduced, with readings recorded twice a year – spring and autumn – but not at every location. GPS was replaced in 2009 by LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging).
Since 2003, readings have been taken every six months at all measurement points except for two included slightly later. Cliff recession is monitored along notional lines, or profiles, most of them spaced at approximately 500 metre intervals along the coastline and which extend from a point a little distance behind the cliff to a position out to sea.
The profile approach has the limitation that it captures cliff recession only at certain points along the coast. Recently, continuous cliff line recording has been carried out, using differential GPS equipment. Taking a monitoring profile as centre, cliff loss is calculated for a section extending 250 metres either side.
how much erosion
Some degree of caution is called for when proposing an average rate of erosion. There is wide seasonal variation, and much difference between locations, with a number of hotspots. The last ten years produce an overall average erosion rate of 1.47 metres per year for the entire coastline. When defenced stretches are removed from the total length, the loss of unprotected cliff is 1.73 metres per year.
A project to estimate coastal retreat after a century of erosion is described in Hartmut Valentin (1954), ‘Land Loss at Holderness’ (references). In 1952, 307 selected reference points at intervals of about 200 metres were compared with the 1852 Ordnance Survey map. Results indicated that, over the span of one hundred years, the cliff line had receded 120 metres on average (1.20 metres per year), losing around 720 hectares (1,780 acres, or 7.2 square kilometres) of land.
The Valentin figure for cliff loss can be checked against data calculated from other surveys. By abstracting an estimate for the same period from data published by East Riding of Yorkshire Council, a value of 1.24 metres per year is obtained. The small difference is probably immaterial given the methodologies used at the time and the observation that only five measuring points actually coincide.
As regards volume of material removed by the sea, a calculation based on length of unprotected cliff and cliff height suggests that roughly one million cubic metres, weighing perhaps 2.2 million metric tonnes, are lost for every metre of recession along the coast. In fact, the tides not only erode the cliff but the beach and sea bed, too. The question of where all the washed away material is deposited awaits a complete answer.
data for the last ten years (pdf)
data for the last ten years (spreadsheet)
full available data (spreadsheet)
erosion calculator (download)
more on East Yorkshire coastal erosion