UCL Department of Geography


Recent projects

Recent projects from the Coastal and Estuarine Research Unit.

Integrated Coastal Sediment Systems

Project partners

Funding body

Project description

This project is a desk-based assessment to test the value of using multispectral high-resolution data to examine intertidal archaeology and morphology. The project takes advantage of recent advances in remote-sensing technologies and GIS spatial mapping capabilities to identify archaeological features, integrate a wide range of archaeological, morphological and palaeoenvironmental data, and reconstruct the coastal prehistory of the Solent, on the southern coast of England. The project focuses on the development and assessment of the multispectral mapping technique, which has the potential to provide a cost-effective approach for monitoring, mapping and managing the coastal zone and their related archaeological sites, particularly in regions of significant human activity.

Characterisation and prediction of large-scale coastal geomorphological behaviour


  • Environment Agency SC060074 (2007-2009)

This work is funded by Environment Agency and aims to develop knowledge, models and analysis methods that characterise the exchanges taking place over large temporal and spatial scales within the coastal system. Specific project objectives of this project are:

  1. To scope and develop a detailed research plan including consultation, reviewing and understanding the processes and models available for assessing and predicting coastal morphological change and responses.
  2. To characterise large-scale coastal exchanges to allow models over different scales and components of the coastal system to be linked so that a more integrated approach to predicting impacts can be developed.
  3. To develop a conceptual coastal geomorphological behavioural model to predict large-scale long-term coastal geomorphological change to enable predictions of future coastal behaviour incorporating coastal intervention.

The project consortium includes HR Wallingford, UCL, University of Southampton, University of Newcastle, Kenneth Pye Associates, Royal Haskoning and the British Geological Survey. An important component of this project has been the formalisation and development of a method for mapping the structure of large-scale coastal systems.

Project pages

  • Coastal Geomorphology
  • Coastal system mapping tutorial


Development and demonstration of systems-based estuary simulators (EstSim)


  • Crown Estate / National Maritime Museum (2007-2008) 


  • Ongoing

This project is being undertaken through a Caird Research Fellowship awarded to Dr Helene Burningham in 2007 by Crown Estate, in partnership with the National Maritime Museum. The extensive marine chart and map collections of the National Maritime Museum and Crown Estate constitute an important resource that can be utilised to understand the historic evolution of the East Anglian coast.

Historical bathymetric charts covering the Suffolk and Essex shoreface and inner shelf have been scanned and georeferenced to facilitate GIS-based analysis of morphological changes in major features of interest (e.g. shorelines and offshore sand banks). When completed, this study will provide a historical context for contemporary coastal process studies and shoreline management.


  • Burningham H & French JR (2011) Seabed morphodynamics in a large coastal embayment: 180 years of change in the Greater Thames estuary. Hydrobiologia 672, 105-119.

  • Burningham H & French JR (2009) Seabed mobility in the greater Thames estuary. Crown Estate. ISBN: 978-1-906410-09-4

  • Burningham H & French JR (2009) Historical changes in the seabed of the greater Thames estuary. Crown Estate. ISBN: 978-1-906410-04-9

  • Burningham H & French JR (2009) Historical seabed mobility in an outer estuary - sea basin environment. Journal of Coastal Research SI56, 589-93

Morphodynamics and sedimentology of mixed-sediment inlets


  • Ongoing

Inlet research has tended to focus on sandy systems and mixed sand-gravel inlets have only recently been scientifically described. Also, the relative importance of wave and tidal processes is generally used to account for geographical variation in inlet morphodynamic behaviour despite the fact that sedimentology also exerts an important control on the efficacy of transporting mechanisms and the morphology of inlet shoals. CERU has studied two sand-gravel inlets on the east coast of England to evaluate the relative importance of sedimentology on inlet and ebb-tidal delta morphodynamic behaviour.

Woodbridge Haven at the mouth of the Deben estuary maintains a fixed inlet position 8 km to the south of Orford Haven, the more mobile mouth of the Alde/Ore estuary. Woodbridge Haven bypasses sediment through ebb-tidal breaching, whilst bypassing at Orford Haven occurs through a combination of long-term alongshore inlet migration and spit breaching with short-term ebb-tidal breaching. Both systems comprise sand and gravel-sized sediment and are subject to a similar North Sea storm wave climate and meso-tidal regime. Whilst these inlets can be conceptualised in a similar way to their sand-dominated counterparts, their morphometry and periodicity are not directly comparable: they are smaller and bypass sediment more slowly than would be expected for sand-dominated systems of comparable size.


  • Burningham H & French JR (2007) Morphodynamics and sedimentology of mixed sediment inlets. Journal of Coastal Research SI50, 710-15.

  • Burningham H & French JR (2006) Morphodynamic behaviour of a mixed sand-gravel ebb-tidal delta: Deben estuary, Suffolk, UK. Marine Geology 225, 23-44.

Capturing geomorphological change in a coastal simulator


  • Tyndall Centre - Research Project T3.42 (2003-2005)  


  • Completed

This project was funded through the Tydnall Centre's Research Theme 4 - Sustaining the Coastal Zone Project ID - T3.42 and involved a consortium of Southhampton University, Tyndall Centre, British Geological Survey, UCL, and the University of Cambridge. It has led to an outcome-driven deductive methodology for geomorphological analysis that structures current knowledge and understanding in a systematic manner using fuzzy logic concepts.

Building on recent large-scale coastal investigations and with reference to a case study of the UK East Anglian coast, the fuzzy logic-based methodology defines the active coastal system using a flexible generic classification that integrates expert opinion as a basis for the assessment of potential future geomorphological response to changes in sea level and sediment supply.

Preliminary results for the East Anglian coast suggest that shoreline management is already having, and will continue to be, a significant influence on coastal evolution irrespective of sea-level rise.


  • Hanson SE, Nicholls RJ, Balson P, Brown I, French JR, Spencer T & Sutherland WJ (2010) Capturing coastal geomorphological change within regional integrated assessment: an outcome-driven fuzzy logic approach.Journal of Coastal Research 26, 831-42.

Morphodynamics of tidal wetlands


  • Ongoing

CERU has a long history of involvement in tidal wetlands research, with a particular focus on physical processes in salt marshes. A recent paper in Marine Geology (French, 2006) re-interprets global data relating to vertical marsh growth and sea-level rise in the context of the conceptual model relating elevation, sedimentation, sea-level rise, sediment supply and tidal range. This analysis is supported by numerical mass balance modelling of the equivalent parameter space, and of the sensitivity of marsh hydroperiod and sedimentation to sea-level and sediment supply forcing. The effect of auto compaction on the translation of sedimentation into elevation change is also considered.

Parameter space modelling shows that sediment supply, and the efficiency with which this is depleted by deposition, exerts a strong control on marsh resilience to external forcing. Model results also indicate significant variability in marsh sedimentation associated with 18.6-year tidal modulation and meteorological processes at short-term scales: this complicates the interpretation of sedimentation or elevation change obtained from monitoring programmes of short duration.

CERU has long-term monitoring in place on salt marshes in Norfolk (Scolt Head Island), Suffolk (Blyth estuary), and Essex (Blackwater estuary). This is based on the SET methodology in collaboration with the US Geological Survey and the University of Cambridge.


  • French JR (2006) Tidal marsh sedimentation and resilience to environmental change: Exploratory modelling of tidal, sea-level and sediment supply forcing in predominantly allochthonous systems. Marine Geology 235, 119-36

  • French JR, Burningham, H (2003) Tidal marsh sedimentation versus sea-level rise: a southeast England estuarine perspective. In: NC Kraus, WG McDougal (eds.) Coastal Sediments 03. New York, American Society of Civil Engineers, 1-14.

  • French JR, Reed DJ (2001) Physical contexts for saltmarsh conservation. In: Warren A, French JR (eds.) Conservation and the physical environment. Chichester, John Wiley, 179-228.

  • Cahoon DR, French JR, Spencer T, Reed DJ, Möller I (2000) Vertical Accretion Versus Elevational Adjustment in UK Saltmarshes: An Evaluation of Alternative Methodologies. In: K Pye, JRL Allen (eds.) Coastal and estuarine environments: sedimentology, geomorphology and geoarchaeology. Geological Society of London Special Publication 175, 223-38.

Defra/EA Estuaries Research Programme - Phase 2 Research Plan


  • Defra FD2115 (2001-2002)


  • Completed

This four-month project was funded by DEFRA (Project FD2115) with the aim of producing a coherent, well-justified and cost-effective programme of work for Phase 2 of the Estuaries Research Programme (ERP2). The project prioritised the research recommendations made by ERP Phase 1 (which was completed in 2000), as well as taking into account other recent research. Initial consultation commenced in late December 2001 and the final Research Plan was completed in April 2002.


  • French JR, Reeve DE, Owen M (2002) DEFRA/EA Estuaries Research Programme Phase 2 Research Plan. London, DEFRA, 64pp.