The buried coast: developing novel geophysical techniques to reconstruct coastal landscapes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of Earth and Environment


Coasts are important ecological systems. They provide natural barriers from coastal flooding, habitats for diverse fauna and flora and are the location of much infrastructure and industry. Understanding coastal system response to sea-level change is important to be able to predict future system response and developing novel research approaches is vital to better respond to the threats to our coastlines.

Former coastal sequences provides archives of system response over time to changes in relative sea level. Some of the best-preserved palaeo coastal sediments are those from areas which have experienced periods of relative sea-level fall (often due to land uplift) burying them under modern terrestrial sediments. To identify and reconstruct such environments, current research methods typically use a limited number of borehole records from which the sedimentological information is then extrapolated into 2-dimensions (e.g. Barlow et al., 2014). Although this provides detailed point-samples of the paleo-landscape, it can be difficult to ensure accurate extrapolation between control points, particularly if a borehole samples an anomalous structure. Geophysical survey represents a non-invasive means of expanding borehole control across a spatially extensive area, potentially offering 3-D insight into the large-scale morphology of the buried coastal system. Of particular promise in this application is ground penetrating radar (GPR).

GPR methods are widely established in near-surface surveying, and offer rapid and high-resolution appraisal of subsurface structure. Typical GPR surveys may only 'see' the subsurface to a depth of < 5 m, but resolve the detail of that subsurface on a sub-decimetre scale. Dense grids of GPR acquisitions allow the subsurface to be viewed as a series of cross-sections, from which features of the paleo-landscape can be inferred (Figure 1). Additionally, GPR is well-developed for civil engineering applications, and is useful for assessing the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure to sea-level rise.

With appropriate calibration, GPR data can also be used to quantify physical properties of the subsurface (e.g., West and Truss, 2006; Booth et al., 2011). Laboratory techniques such as time domain reflectometry (TDR) provide a bridge between core samples of the subsurface and the GPR response. In this way, a remote means of establishing (e.g.) subsurface porosity can be obtained.

This project will aim to develop a novel approach, using both GPR and borehole data, to reconstruct palaeo-coastal environments on a scale much greater than done previously. This will allow us to understand on a much large spatial scale how a coastal system response to sea-level change, rather just at a single borehole location. It also offers the potential by which to identify unconsolidated buried coastal sediments that may be susceptible to erosion under models of rising sea level.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/R009813/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2022
1929861 Studentship NE/R009813/1 30/09/2017 30/08/2021 Luis Rees-Hughes
Description Part of my research has focussed on the reconstruction of a late-Holocene buried dune field in North Wales, UK. In this presentation, I will outline the development of a semi-automated GPR feature-extraction tool, based on the image processing techniques 'Edge Detection' and 'Thresholding'. Developed initially for medical image analysis, the presentation highlights their benefits as a means of assisting the analysis of GPR data for subsurface geomorphic features.
Exploitation Route Given that GPR reflectivity can be related to changes in lithology and/or pore fluids, the structure and extent of subsurface depositional environments can be efficiently estimated using these algorithms. When benchmarked against representative core control, the 3D architecture of the Quaternary environment can be reconstructed from the GPR dataset.
Sectors Environment

Description RSK Geophysics CASE partner 
Organisation RSK Group Limited
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution RSK Group are CASE partners for this PhD project. This builds upon an existing relationship between CoI Booth and RSK. We have co-developed elements of the PhD project with RSK to ensure that the findings from the work are useful to their commercial work. Rees-Hughes has contributed to some of their industrial surveys.
Collaborator Contribution RSK has hosted Rees-Hughes on several placements to their office in Hemel-Hemstead, allowing him to work with geophysicists in their team, access data and also learn new skills from some of thier broader work. The senior staff has been closely involved in Rees-Hughes project development and supervision. They have provided accommodation at thier local house, as well as the £3500 CASE award.
Impact Not yet - papers are forthcoming
Start Year 2017