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Special report: How Storm Hercules has changed the Westcountry coastline forever

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 11, 2014

By Phil Goodwin, WMN reporter, Twitter: @Goodwin_Phil

  • Before and after: The rocks at Porthcothan near Padstow on the north Cornish coast that have been severly damaged

  • Porthcothan Bay as it was known

  • Porthcothan Bay after the storms

  • Portreath

  • Graham Alecock-Smith with a boat uncovered by the storm

  • Sand taken from beaches at Seaton

  • Whitsand Bay

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The immensely powerful storm which battered the Westcountry last week caused monumental damage, smashing into pieces a number of well-known landmarks, including iconic rock formations, piers and harbour walls.

The human cost of the extreme weather has also been high – a man and a woman have died in seas off the region’s coast while another man remains missing after going out to photograph the remarkable event.

Storm Hercules may have passed, leaving locals to mop up seafronts and re-build walls and cafés, but experts believe the effect of the pounding waves and high tides may last much longer, leaving weakened, sodden cliffs at increased risk of landslide as the weather dries out.

Dr Robin Shail, a geologist at Exeter University working at the Camborne School of Mines, said the impact had been the biggest since the winter storms of 1991.

He predicts more damage is likely to emerge when people begin returning to less-visited places, and says the process of erosion appears to be speeding up as a result of climate change.

“The landscape which we see and love and cherish is forever changing – people assume it is fixed but it is an ever-moving canvas,” Dr Shail added.

“What we are seeing within the debate about climate change is that one-in-50-year events are becoming one-in-20-year ones– we are moving to a situation where change is occurring more rapidly – it is like pressing the fast forward button.

“Some of these rocks which have been destroyed are very big but they are being hit by very big waves, hundreds of tonnes of water in a single impact, which is enough to break them up.”

The most eye-catching losses were Dorset’s Pom Pom Rock, the landmark Cornish rock arch in Porthcothan Bay and the end section of Porthreath pier, the Monkey House.

But there was widespread damage to sea-front buildings, harbour walls and breakwaters.

The raging seas also reclaimed vast amounts of sand, turning Whitsand Bay into a beach of boulders and leaving Perranporth’s famous Watering Hole perched on an eight-foot, sandy cliff face.

The South West Coastal Path did not escape the ferocity of the weather with routes damaged and a path at Appledore in now shut to the public.

Mark Owen, national trails officer, said the full extent may not be known until people begin using the route.

He added: “Surprisingly we have not had any new reports of cliff falls since the weekend but we haven’t had time to fully assess – there may be other damage we are not aware of and sections lost.”

Cornwall Council has estimated its repair bill to be around £2 million mark.

South West insurance firm Cornish Mutual says claims for damage to homes and businesses already top £500,000.

Dave Owens, Cornwall Council’s assistant head of environment and waste, said the ground remained “completely saturated” and warned further landslips are possible around the coast ‘

Geoff Brown, cabinet member for homes and communities, praised communities who should be “applauded for coming together to defend their local areas”, filling sandbags on the beach in Perranporth to protect the village against the onslaught of the incoming tides and heavy rains.

Mark Davidson, an associate professor and member of Plymouth University’s ‘storm chasers’ team, said a rare combination of meteorological circumstances had combined to produce a storm of “immense power”.

“It is a testament to the strength of Hercules that it destroyed rock formations which have stood for hundreds of years,” he added.

“It was the convergence of a so many contributing factors: a weather system about as bad as it gets and some of the biggest waves we have seen – it was a pretty rare event, no question about that.

“It produced a storm surge in excess of 2.5m, which compared to a predicted rise of half a metre over the next century was five times the sea level rise we might get due to global warming.

“It is becoming more common and it could be that increased storminess has a bigger effect than the sea level rise itself.”

Fossil 'gold rush' but cliffs now in peril

The stunning Jurassic coastline hit the headlines in 2012 and into last winter when months of drought and heavy rain weakened the unstable cliffs and produced a series of dramatic falls.

Now there is concern that the pummelling from waves, in some places rising as high as 27ft (8m), may have softened up the area ready for a fresh set of landslides in the spring and summer.

Plymouth academic and ‘storm chaser’ Mark Davidson, said cliff erosion and landslides were now a serious concern after waves reached areas of the coastline previously untouched by sea water.

“In some cases the shoreline was moved up to 150 metres up the beach with the sea hitting parts that have never been wet before or for a long time,” he added.

“As the storm impacts on the coast it eats away, undercutting the cliff – parts will have been rendered unstable and we may well see cliff falls because of the storm.

“There will be an effect on how we plan our infrastructure.

“We will always have beaches and coastal tourism but coastal defence is going to cost much more in future.”

The giant rollers may have wreaked havoc around the shore but the scouring effect of the powerful surf has also provided some unexpected treats, with rare dinosaur fossils emerging from the muddy shale along the East Devon coast and unknown boat wrecks were uncovered in Newquay and Penzance.

Established local fossil hunters were stunned when a day-tripper snatched a 200 million-year-old dinosaur one from under their noses.

Amateur enthusiast Alan Saxon uncovered the complete skeleton of a 5ft-long ichthyosaur – a giant, toothy marine reptile that resembled a dolphin – embedded in rocks at Charmouth Beach, near Lyme Regis, just 500 metres from the heritage centre.

Tony Gill, owner of the Charmouth Fossil Shop, said the beach was littered with cliff falls making it hard to navigate up and down.

“I have never seen so many collectors out there as now – but I have also never worked so hard for so little,” he added.

“We always look forward to a good storm here – unfortunately we haven’t had the falls in the right places as there are only one or two layers where you find fossils

“The storm washed a lot of muck away but the cliffs are protected by a heap of mud –once that disappears it will cause some damage.“I think it will do something later, especially after the rains.”

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