SPATIAL AND TEMPORAL VARIABILITY OF SANDY BEACH SEDIMENT GRAIN SIZE AND SORTING
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Beach grain size plays a major role in controlling beach slope and sediment transport rates and is a crucial criterion in selecting the appropriate fill material for beach nourishment. Yet, little is known about how and why beach grain size (and sorting) varies both spatially and temporally on high-energy sandy beaches. Therefore, in this PhD research project, the presence, magnitude and predictability of any spatio-temporal sediment variability was investigated on a number of contrasting high-energy (average significant wave height = 0.8 to 3.5 m), predominantly macrotidal (MSR = 3.1 – 6.2 m), sandy (0.26 – 0.64 mm) beach sites around the southwest peninsula of the United Kingdom (UK). The spatial extent of the data collected ranges from regional (one off snapshot of the sediment conditions on 53 beaches over 485 km of coastline) to local scales (repeated high-resolution samples from across the inter- and subtidal zone of a single high-energy sandy beach; Perranporth, UK). The temporal scales of the sampling ranges from tidal scale (~12 hours) up to monthly (long-term monitoring since 2008). A combination of traditional and modern field data collection methods has provided new insights into the sediment dynamics of sandy beaches.
Surface and 0.25 m core sediment samples from the 53 beaches around the southwest UK and high-resolution digital measurements with longer 1 m sand cores from the intertidal zone, plus grab samples from the subtidal zone, at Perranporth, indicated the presence of three quasi-permanent spatial trends. On all sandy beaches, surface sediments became coarser (and better sorted) in the seaward direction across the intertidal zone. Peak sediment sizes were observed on the lower beach around mean low water springs, which were an average 19% coarser (and 8% better sorted) than sediments sampled on the upper intertidal beach. Sediment size (and sorting) also increased (improved) with distance down the sediment column over the top 0.25 m to 1 m. Peak sediment sizes at depth were an average 16% coarser (and 16% better sorted) than surface sediments. In the subtidal zone, surface sediments became finer and poorer sorted with increasing offshore distance. Minimum sediment size occurred on the subtidal bar crest and were an average 21% finer (and 51% poorer sorted) than the lower beach sediments and 5% finer (and 38% poorer sorted) than upper beach sediments. The coarsest sediments were usually the best sorted at all locations.
The intertidal coarsening was deterministically linked to the location and amount of breaking wave-induced turbulence. The peak sediment sizes (and sorting) on the lower beach correlated with the location of peak wave dissipation (sediment size to amount of wave dissipation, r2 = 0.86) and the finer sediment sizes on the upper beach and bar were coincident with reduced amounts of wave dissipation in these regions.
Long-term seasonal monitoring of the surface sediments at Perranporth indicated a background seasonality, where the winter months were an average 35% coarser and 22% better sorted than samples collected in summer. This seasonal pattern was punctuated by episodic storm events that promoted a significant coarsening (up to 112% in the extreme winter storms of 2014) of the surface sediments and significant beach erosion up to 175 m3/m. An empirical model forced by the degree of disequilibrium between an instantaneous and antecedent (weighted average) wave steepness time series was able to capture up to 86% of the sediment grain size and sorting variability, incorporating both the seasonal and storm driven change. The same model, applied to daily observations of sediment size and sorting changes was able to explain 72% of the variability.
A conceptual model is proposed that extends the cross-shore sediment transport shape functions to include the various sediment (size and sorting) responses alongside the morphodynamic evolution during persistently high and low wave steepness conditions. Under high steepness waves, the finer material is preferentially removed from the lower intertidal beach, leaving behind coasrer sediments. This fine material is transported to the subtidal bar, which becomes finer (and more poorly sorted) inversely with the coarsening (and improved sorting) of the intertidal zone sediments. Under low steepness waves, this fine material is returned from the bar to the intertidal beach.
This work provides a detailed, quantitative insight into the magnitude of sediment grain size and sorting changes exhibited by sandy beaches on a number of spatial and temporal scales. Several consistent trends were observed on a range of sandy beaches despite their different environmental conditions and geological histories. This improved understanding of sediment grain size and sorting changes on beaches will hopefully aid future research efforts and ensure that this fundamental aspect of coastal science is not overlooked or oversimplified.