Shafts of late afternoon autumn sunlight can occasionally break through cloud-covered skies bringing about the most subtle of changes in the landscape – like briefly adding the slightest perceptible warm glow to delineate and brighten sand ripple patterns on the low-tide shore.
All around our British coasts we can see evidence of coastal erosion. It seems to be happening at an ever increasing rate in recent years. It is especially noticeable where the edge of the seashore is composed of softer rocks or sand dunes, for example. The coastline of Dorset in England, like many other places, is vulnerable to coastal erosion. Studland Beach near Poole Harbour is a case in point.
The shore of Studland Bay is divided into three stretches: South Beach, Middle Beach, and Knoll Beach. At South Beach, we have already seen how the burrows of small marine worms help to break up the surface of the chalk that underlies the beach in an almost imperceptible process called bio-erosion. However, the physical, hydraulic, and abrasive action of high energy destructive storm waves on the soft materials of the cliff is the coastal process responsible for immediately obvious damage with a wearing-away and break-up of the rocks and other materials on the upper margin of the seashore.
This destructive action of waves is most apparent from the number of small land slips, and trees that have collapsed to the beach, as cliff material [like London and Creekmoor Clays, and Broadstone and Oakdale Sandstones] has washed away from beach level. This has caused the undermining of the cliff deposits, and the eventual fall of material from higher up. There are a number of trees lying in a horizontal position at the base of the low soft cliffs on South Beach.
Where the ground level changes from cliff top to nearer beach level, the wearing away of the soil by the waves means that the trees now seem to be growing directly from the seashore with nothing but sand and pebbles around their roots and trunks. Just a short distance north of these beach-bound trees there are numerous beach huts on the slightly higher ground behind the shore. They are in a vulnerable position. Here the soft ground on which the huts stand is protected from the destructive force of wave action and flooding by the emplacement of stone-filled wire cages known as gabions. These are stacked to form a barrier wall of harder material that is more resistant to erosional coastal processes.
In the corner of South Beach at Studland in Dorset, where the chalk cliffs that lead to Old Harry Rocks meet the seashore, the Studland Chalk Formation bedrock extends over the beach as a flat wave-washed platform. The smooth white rock surface is exposed at low tide but is frequently covered by sand, pebbles and decaying seaweed. On a recent visit a lot of the weed had cleared and I was able to observe the chalk platform closely. I realised that it is riddled with small holes and tunnels made by marine polychaete worms.
The holes on the surface of the rocks are roughly dumb-bell shaped and a few millimetres across. You can tell the worms are still living and occupying the burrows because the combined mucous and mud tube-linings remain intact. In locations where the rock has broken, the shape of the tunnels leading down into the rock from the holes on the surface is revealed. The tunnels or burrows are approximately U-shaped. The worm lies in a doubled-up position in the burrow with both the head and the rear end at the rock surface. When the tide is in, and water covers the burrow, the worm protrudes and vigorously agitates its two long, thin, ciliated palps (feelers) to gather particulate food floating by. Waste matter is expelled into the water but it is probably the overall acidic environment created by the metabolic waste products that gradually dissolves the calcium in the rock to create the burrow.
The accurate identification of these worms is problematical since the most diagnostic parts are usually discarded by the animal as soon as the creature is extricated from its burrow. However, it is likely that they are bristle worms of the Spionidae family, probably the Polydora genus, and possibly Polydora ciliata (Johnston).
Brightly coloured seaweeds were washing ashore at Studland Bay in Dorset on 21st May 2017. Isolated clumps of vivid red, green, and brown soft seaweeds, that looked attractive floating in the clear shallow water, or scattered individually on the yellow ribbed sand, soon accumulated into thick solid multi-coloured mats undulating on the water’s edge. When a mat of algae like this is pushed high with the rising tide, and left stranded on the upper beach, it decays rapidly to become what the human eye perceives as a rather smelly, ugly mess. For every other organism large or small on the beach, rotting seaweed is a marvellous bonanza of food and shelter, which also helps to stabilise the sandy beach for further colonisation by plants.
Flint nodules embedded in the low cliff between two minor faults in Studland Chalk Formation exposures at South Beach on Studland Bay, Dorset, England. At the top of the cliff face is a layer of ironstone and iron-stained flints that has caused the rusty stain on the chalk below. Elsewhere the rocks are covered with a fine coating of green algae.
A couple of useful references for the geology of the area in which these photographs of the chalk and flints were taken:
Barton, CM, Woods, MA, Bristow, CR, Newell, AJ, Weathead, RK, Evans, DJ, Kirby, GA, Warrington, G, Riding, JB, Freshney, EC, Highley, DE, Lott, GK, Forster, A, and Gibson, A. 2011. Geology of south Dorset and south-east Devon and its World Heritage Coast. Special Memoir of the British Geological Survey. Sheets 328, 341/342, 342/343, and parts of 326/340, 327, 329 and 339 (England and Wales), 9–100.
Cope, JCW, 2012 Geology of the Dorset Coast, Geologists’ Association Guide No. 22, Guide Series Editor SB Marriott, The Geologists’ Association, 191-194. A serious guide for the more dedicated amateur and professional.
Ensom, P and Turnbull, M 2011 Geology of the Jurassic Coast, The Isle of Purbeck, Weymouth to Studland, published for the Jurassic Coast Trust by Coastal Publishing, ISBN 978-1-907701-00-9, pages 96-117. A beautifully illustrated beginner’s guide to the geology of the area – one of a series of excellent publications by the Jurassic Coast Trust.
Swanage Solid and Drift Geology (map), British Geological Survey (Natural Environment Research Council) 1:50,000 Series, England and wales Sheets 342 (East) and part of 343
Textures and patterns in chalk cliffs at Studland Bay – showing white strata and darker flint nodule layers; different degrees of weathering, fracturing and smoothing of the rock surfaces; subtle inherent variations in colouring; greyscale shading brought about by dirt and biological encrustations; and more dramatic green algal coatings on the wave-washed cliff base.