East Yorkshire coastal erosion

sediment segmentation

Content created by Brian Williams in May 2015.
Revised July 2016.

 Holderness location

This page presents a model to explain the movement of beach sediment and associated cliff erosion along the glacially deposited coastline of the East Riding of Yorkshire, the greater section of which is known as the Holderness coast.

Material which forms the beach is called beach sediment, a broad term for sand of all grades, for shingle, pebbles, cobbles, and rocks. Sediment is gradually driven down the coast by the action of sea current and tides. It moves not as a whole but in segments, or bodies. Depletion of sediment as one body gives way to another allows waves to reach the base of the cliff more frequently and with greater energy, often creating erosion hotspots.

sources of sediment
A main supply of sediment for the East Yorkshire coast enters at the ‘top’, arriving into Bridlington Bay having been brought around Flamborough Head by a sea current flowing north to south. Within the bay are sand banks known as the Smithic Sands, which act as a sediment depository. The bay is subject to a circulatory tidal regime.

Another supply is delivered by the very processes of erosion. The substance of the cliffs was for a time the load of a composite glacier which endured for four thousand years or so (see some basics). At each surface that the ice passed over in its distant journey, grains to rocks of all sizes would be picked up. Part of the glacial course included the sediment-layered dry bed of the North Sea.

Nearly a third of eroded cliff material consists of sand and coarse particles. Stones and boulders, called erratics and found in abundance within the tills, are reduced eventually to finer grades once on the beach. The rest is mostly clay, becoming mud and soon washed out to sea.

beach movement
Sediment spills from the southern end of Bridlington Bay, north of Barmston, where it enters the realm of longshore drift.

Longshore drift describes the action by which beach sediment is transported in the direction of the sea current when waves arrive at an angle to the shore. See the terminal groyne effect page.

The impression may be one of an entire beach slowly working down the coastline as a single entity. In the East Yorkshire situation, this is not altogether the case. As well as longshore drift there is an additional disturbance to sediment.

 sediment body formation

An incoming wave, arriving oblique to the shoreline, travels an increasing distance relative to the length of its crest before breaking. As a result, some energy is lost, and sediment is deposited a little lower on the beach.

(Refraction, or reduction of a wave’s angle of approach as it enters shallow water, is ignored for present purposes since it may be considered to affect wave behaviour equally at all points.)

The alignment of released sediment develops a seaward tendency, or ‘pull’. Subsequent waves, influenced by the curvature, add more sediment in a manner of positive feedback sometimes referred to as self-organising. A body of sediment builds, variously identifiable along its length as a bank, bar, brow, or ridge.

Although the sediment body pulls towards the sea, it does not continue into deeper water. Wherever such a feature comes to an end, waves are able to carry sediment higher up the beach, and the process begins again.

The beach therefore should not be thought of as a continuous longitudinal expanse but more in the light of segments, each hundreds of metres in length, moving as if on a conveyor belt.

Behind the curve of a sediment body can be found a shoreline starved of sediment. Beach level is reduced, allowing almost every high tide to reach the cliff foot regardless of time of year. In stormy conditions, wave energy has a facilitated pathway to the soft clay material.

Some previous studies (see references) have employed the terms ord and ord system to describe the situation where sediment depletion occurs. The word ‘ord’ possibly passed through Old English from Danish and relates to a pointed tip or end, though other origins are also suggested.

An ord system has characteristic features. These include a sand bar or ridge at the lower beach, as mentioned above, usually asymmetric in cross section and sometimes called a tongue. Another is the runnel, a channel or trough between the sediment body and cliff, often retaining water from the last high tide.

Because of a sediment deficiency behind the bar, the upper beach (nearest the cliff) greatly diminishes, possibly to expose the underlying clay platform. It is said to be a thin beach (the opposite would be a full beach). The depleted stretch, which typically extends quite some metres until a resumption of upper beach, is regarded as the ord centre.

Ords, representing weakness in beach protection, provide a means of beach strengthening, too. Input of sediment from the newly eroded cliff does not fill the break that enabled it to become available, but contributes to the downdrift configuration.

The pace of ord movement, or migration, is essentially determined by wave and wind conditions. During a quiet season there may be little or no discernible movement. Northerly storms tend to produce the most repositioning.

In the aerial map [Google Earth: imagery date May 2007], an ord system passes Long Lane, Atwick. For some 285 metres, the upper beach is much reduced or absent at the ord centre, exposing the cliff base to increased erosion and creating a hotspot.

 ord system (aerial imagery)

 sand step, Tunstall: 29 September 2012
A sand step marks the approach of an erosion cycle. The trowel is pressed into an earlier beach surface [Tunstall: 29 September 2012].
 sediment body – view south, Atwick: 23 April 2013
Waters of an incoming tide provide an outline for the southern end of a sediment body. Beyond the tongue, which 'pulls' seaward, the lower beach is flooded. Visible at upper middle picture is an associated runnel [Atwick: 23 April 2013].
 stones in gutter, Hornsea north: 23 April 2013
Here, a 'gutter' runnel has formed at the cliff base. The stones will act as milling agents, adding to the erosion process [Hornsea north: 23 April 2013].
 sediment body – view north, Atwick: 26 May 2013
Beach visitors stroll along a sand bar. Again, a seaward pull and runnel are evident [Atwick: 26 May 2013].
 erosion of high platform, Grimston: 14 July 2014
Breaking of a high platform during an erosion event. The scaling rod is one metre overall [Grimston: 14 July 2014].
 sand brows, Hilston: 7 May 2013
Hilston beach pillbox on a sand bar soon to be covered by a rising tide. The picture shows mudballs and a fall [Hilston: 7 May 2013].
 long runnel, Tunstall: 24 September 2011

on the beach

Within the shoreline environment, sediment features are not always easy – or indeed every time possible – to identify and delineate. A reliable indicator of an ord system, and of active erosion, is the sight of a swarm of mudballs.

A typical frame of reference, or domain, for a sediment segmentation body (SSB) is proposed as follows. In length, along the shore, about 3000 metres, reducing where the coastline curves, notably at the northern and southern ends. In width, across the shore at low tide as averaged from aerial imagery, some 180 metres. In height, from low water mark to high water mark, around five metres. That is, the vertical dimension compares to just over one sixth of one per cent of longitudinal.

There may be nineteen or twenty SSB domains present along the coast at any one time. See the migration chart.

Below is a chart composed of nine consecutive cross-beach scans representing a distance along the beach of four kilometres, from Cowden to Aldbrough. The vertical scale is approximately twice that of the horizontal.

 cross-beach profiles Prs55-63, October 2010

Pr55. The sequence starts with a full upper beach (at left of image) above a clear transition (the point where beach slope changes) and a wide lower beach.

Pr56. A proto-runnel appears, and there is a drop in upper beach level, signifying sediment depletion behind the main sediment mass.

Pr57, Pr58. Asymmetrical in section, the body of sediment pulls seaward. A fully formed runnel becomes wider, and the upper beach reduces to a local minimum.

Pr59. The runnel is at its deepest and contains water from the last high tide which interrupts the scan trace. However, sediment is deposited at the upper beach, increasing the level there.

Pr60. Features characteristic of ords begin to disappear as the sediment body reaches the low water mark.

Pr61, Pr62, Pr63. Another ord system develops.

Sediment segmentation bodies and their associated ord systems are considered to migrate south along the East Yorkshire coastline at an average pace of around 500 metres a year, taking well over a century to complete the journey.

Progress of sediment movement can be tracked from seasonally updated beach level contours available from the Coastal Explorer Interactive Map (open Layer List at right of green toolbar). Areas of full upper beach, sometimes referred to as salients, and stretches of sediment depletion are clearly depicted using colour grading.

Although it is perhaps reasonable to think of the beach as affording a degree of natural protection, and breaks in sediment as a major cause of erosion, there is also the view that erosion should be regarded as the norm with sediment a transitory means of defence.

at the cliff

Depletion of sediment results in exceptional cliff erosion, which creeps along the coast at essentially the same pace as sediment migration.

Since it is the loss of land at the cliff top which impacts on communities and businesses, emphasis tends to be placed on this aspect of coastal erosion rather than what is happening on the beach. See the data-in-detail page for a description of cliff loss measurement.

The relationship between beach sediment and cliff loss migrations is outlined in a chart as an appendix to the present page.

migration chart

more on East Yorkshire coastal erosion