skip to primary navigation skip to content

CCRU logoCambridge Coastal Research Unit (CCRU)

Providing highest quality scientific research to underpin sustainable coastal management




Atom icon

# JY Buchanan, Geography and Oceanography

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the confirmed presence of manganese nodules on the deep ocean floor. The first person to give a formal lecture in Geography at Cambridge University, the Scottish chemist and hydrographer JY Buchanan, was central to this discovery. The birth of oceanography is generally taken to be the 3.5 year circumnavigation of HMS Challenger, 1872-1876. On 7 March 1873, the Challenger's Chief Scientist, Wyville Thomson, reported that a deepwater haul in the Western Atlantic had revealed 'a number of very peculiar black oval bodies about an inch long … when handing over a portion … to Mr. Buchanan for examination, he found that it consisted of almost pure peroxide of manganese.' Following his lecture in October 1889, Buchanan's career in Geography was not a success (he resigned in late 1893), quite unlike his earlier, stellar career in pioneering oceanography.

# Three Men on a Reef

Special Collections, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Using a one hundred year old photograph found in the archives of the Royal Society in London, Tom Spencer has been able to show that this image forms part of the record of early discussions on modern coral reef science, instigated around the Second Pan-Pacific Science Congress held in Melbourne and Sydney in August/September 1923.

Read more …

# Learning from the Great Tide

Van Veen, J. 1962 Dredge, drain, reclaim, 5th edn. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,

On the exact 70th anniversary of the catastrophic 1953 storm surge along the east coast of England, listen to Tom Spencer, Emeritus Professor of Coastal Dynamics, Department of Geography talk about the governmental response at the time, the challenges for the management of low-lying coasts now, and the work of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit in a BBC Radio 4 programme, Seriously... Learning from the Great Tide.

Read more …

# 100 years of Australian Coral Reef Science; the Cambridge Connections

Photo: C. Maurice Yonge (by permission, National Library of Australia PIC/11204/332)

100 years of Australian coral reef science was celebrated at a special centenary meeting of the Australian Coral Reef Society in Brisbane, Australia, 25-27 November 2022. The Cambridge Coastal Research Unit's Tom Spencer gave the opening keynote address 'The Great Barrier Reef Committee and the making of modern coral reef science' at the Queensland Museum.

Tom showed how early Anglo-Australian collaborations led to the 1928-29 Great Barrier Reef Expedition (leader: Maurice Yonge, Zoology Cambridge; Head of Geographical Section: Alfred Steers, Geography, Cambridge). The Expedition's emphasis on the relationships between reef growth and environment, and the critical importance of their study in the field, effectively set the template for much of modern coral reef science. An accompanying Museum exhibition included the original Expedition dive helmet, used for some of the earliest studies of the variation of coral growth with water depth.

Read more …

# Flood risk futures and a new modelling tool

Most coastal flood risk assessments are over-simplified and only a small number of possible scenarios are considered – not enough to build in the uncertainties of the climate changes we face. Now a new digital tool, developed by the Department's Cambridge Coastal Research Unit with researchers at the consulting engineers Arup and the National Oceanography Centre, allows the consideration of the economic impact of tens of thousands of potential scenarios of rising seas and mitigation activities. Applied to flood risk in the city of Hull, UK east coast, it's the first time the full scope of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sea-level rise projections can be seen in an interactive way.

Read more …

# Britain is crumbling into the sea – but does it matter?

"Sea level rise is a massive inter-generational problem: our children and our grandchildren should not be the victims of poorly informed and short-termist decisions made now" says Tom Spencer, arguing for long-term strategic planning at the coast and contributing to the debate on what to do about coastal erosion, in The Telegraph , 25th June 2022.

Read more …

# Flood Risk Modelling UK East Coast

By Andy Beecroft, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Elizabeth Christie and Tom Spencer, of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit, in collaboration with the National Oceanography Centre and Consulting Engineers Arup report a new approach to coastal flood risk modelling, with a case study for the city of Hull.

Read more …

# A Venetian saltmarsh survival experiment

Tom Spencer has contributed to a commentary in the journal 'Science' on a study published in the journal 'Nature Geoscience' on a large-scale experiment on saltmarsh health in the Venice lagoon where periodic closure of the MOSE barrier system now excludes storm surge sedimentation on the marshes.

Professor Spencer comments 'this study is instructive in highlighting the fundamental mismatch between those strategies aimed at the protection of the built environment and its inhabitants and those aimed at the protection of valuable, biodiverse intertidal habitats. Co-existence is not out of reach but is going to require much more nuanced and sophisticated coastal management approaches than are available at present, urgently needed as we move into decades of progressively higher sea levels.'

# On Coral Reefs, Iconic Engineering and Geography at Cambridge

It is 100 years next October since the formation of Australia's Great Barrier Reef Committee in Brisbane in 1922. As part of these celebrations, Professor Tom Spencer and an Anglo-Australian group of researchers has been investigating one of the Committee's great successes, the 1928-1929 Great Barrier Reef Expedition (Spencer et al., 2021).

On 30 August 1929, Maurice and Mattie Yonge, the Expedition's Leader and Medical Officer respectively, finally said good bye to Australia after living and working for 13 months on Low isles, a small island on the northern Great Barrier Reef. The research undertaken there by the Expedition's British and Australian scientists marked the beginning of modern analytical studies of corals and coral reefs. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was also an Anglo-Australian collaboration, being built by Dorman Long of Middlesborough (and based on their design for the 1928 Tyne Bridge). As the Yonges left Sydney Harbour, the arch was in the early stages of construction; the two halves did not meet until 19 August 1930 with the Bridge finally being opened, an exhilarating affirmation of modern Australia, on 19 March 1932.

But there is also link between the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Great Barrier Reef Expedition and the Department of Geography at Cambridge. One of the key players in the building of the Bridge was Arthur Debenham, Principal Assistant Engineer of the Sydney Harbour Trust. Arthur was the older brother of Frank Debenham (1883-1965), the first Professor of Geography at Cambridge (1931). It was Frank Debenham who had secured the 'Geographical Section' of the 1928-1929 Expedition, seeing to the appointment of Alfred Steers (who was to become the second holder of the Cambridge Chair in 1949) as the section leader and thus promoting the first modern geomorphological studies of the Great Barrier Reef.

Spencer T, Brown, B, Hamylton, S, McLean, R 2021 'A close and friendly alliance': biology, geology and the Great Barrier Reef Expedition of 1928-29. Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review 59, 89-138.

(Photo: C.M. Yonge, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-145038436-1; 30 August 1929)

Read more …

# Coasts, Climate Risk and Cambridge

Research by the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit – on coastal flooding risks (with case studies from The Wash and North Norfolk) and wetland responses to both sea level rise and storm surges – is cited in the latest (June 2021) Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk from the Climate Change Committee.

Read more …

Browse earlier articles…