Monday, 12 January 2015

Guest Post - Dynamic beach sediments

Thank you to Dylan Gilliland for providing this guest post for us.

We all enjoy going to the beach but not every beach is the same. There are distinct differences between a north facing beach and a south facing one. An example of this is the Clarkes beach and Tallows Beach at Cape Byron. Most of the sand that makes up the beaches of the North Coast is derived from the granites of the Great Dividing Range. These granites are eroded and discharged into the coastal regime by flooding rivers. A smaller portion of the beach sediment is derived directly from the headlands and can sometimes form boulder beaches as seen at Lennox Head and Angourie near Yamba. This process has been in effect for at least 65 million years since the break-up of Gondwana and the opening of the Tasman Sea.

Once the sediment is incorporated onto the coastal fringe it is then subject to size sorting and further transportation. This is done through wind, wave and currents off the Tasman Sea which is predominantly from the south to the north and is due to anticlockwise flow of high pressure weather systems that dominate the Australian continent particularly during winter (Short and Woodroffe, 2009). This gives rise to the term that many earth scientists refer to as "the great river of sand". It has played an integral part in the formation of the Morton, Stradbroke and Fraser sand islands.

On a smaller scale, size sorting and northerly transportation affect a beaches shape and composition. This will ultimately dictate how we interact with it. An example would be to examine the location of where to launch a boat. This is usually done in southern beach corners as it is not only protected from waves but the beach has a very gentle slope and the sand is very compact allowing vehicle access without sinking in the sand. What causes this? Headlands form barriers to the dominant southerly swell and will deflect wave energy past the southern corners. This will leave the northern expanse of the beach exposed to the full force of generated wave energy. Therefore, many east coast beaches particularly long beaches develop a zeta-curve shape much like the curve inside a spiral shell.

The amount of energy to reach a beach has a profound effect on the mechanics of sand grains and where they are distributed. In the southern corners there is less energy directed toward the beach therefore smaller particles will be able to settle without being swept away. The smaller particles pack together tighter than large particles and this reduces the beach porosity. When waves wash up the beach it doesn’t soak into the sand dumping its load, instead any particles will recede with the wash resulting in a beach with a low incline and hard packed sand. The northern end of the beach will exhibit characteristics typical of a higher energy environment with coarser sand that has a higher permeability. This can result in a steeper, less compact beach. These can often have formations such as swales, berms and cusps. This is due to waves coming up the beach loaded with sand that gets dumped higher on the shore. The water percolates quickly into the beach and it doesn’t wash the sand back out into the surf zone. For these reasons, near-shore sand bars on the northern end of a beach can be hazardous to inexperienced swimmers due to steep drop-offs, currents and instability.

Beaches are highly dynamic systems that are constantly changing; they are constrained by local geology and dominated by regional weather systems. These dynamic systems give us the beaches that people enjoy so much and the coastal erosion many people fear.

This information is adapted from field notes taken from a coastal geomorphology course conducted by Dr Robert Baker at The University of New England.


*Short, A.D. and Woodroffe, C.D., 2009. The Coast of Australia. Cambridge University Press

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