Biogeomorphic evolution of vegetated coasts: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and satellite measurements


Coastal wetlands, dunes and vegetation are vital natural defences against severe storms, flooding and coastal erosions (Nepf, 2012). They increase coastal resilience and also offer other ecosystem services such as carbon storage and habitat (Barbier et al., 2011; Hansen & Reidenbach 2012).

Past studies of flow-vegetation interaction have been largely focused on homogeneous static vegetation and fixed morphology. Studies of dynamics vegetation patches are mainly for unidirectional and uniform steady flow (Vandenbruwaene et al., 2011). There is a lack of understanding of the multiscale dynamic feedbacks between biological, ecological and physical processes of coastal vegetation in a real world setting, which is critical to better manage and protect these disturbance-driven ecosystems in a changing climate and with accelerated sea-level rise.

In this study, a field observation and numerical model will be use to investigate the temporal and spatial variation of flow and morphological change around dynamic vegetation patches along the Scottish coast. Growth rates and plant traits of coastal vegetation, flow and morpho-dynamics at field sites will be collected by UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), satellite remote sensing, ADV (Acoustic Doppler Velocimeter) and ADCP (Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler). The model results will be fed into a colonization model of dynamic vegetation patches to predict the growth in patch size and time evolution of patch configurations, which will in turn be incorporated in an updated model developed as part of the studentship. The two way coupled flow and vegetation patch dynamics model will be applied to field sites of rapid evolving vegetated coasts in Scotland. The model may be applied to scenarios with various expansion rates of invasive species of vegetation and sea level rise rate. The fields observations and model runs will provide new insight about the influence of expansion of invasive species and coalescence on the interplay of ecological and physical processes in the evolution of vegetated coasts. The outcome of the study will improve our predictions of the collective performance of vegetated coasts as nature-based coastal defence against storms and rising sea level and ecosystem service provider.

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Image Captions

Figure 1 (a) Scale-dependent feedback around a vegetation patch is an important factor of plant developments. (b) Vegetation coastal sand dunes. (c) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in combination with Artificial Intelligence Techniques (UAV-AI) is a powerful tool to monitor biogeomorphic evolution of coastal vegetation patches.


The growth and evolution of vegetation patches and hydrodynamics at the field sites will be measured by UAV  using artificial intelligent analysis techniques, ADV and ADCP.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature survey and field observations, data analysis

Year 2

Field observations and model applications, journal and conference paper writing

Year 3

Further model-data interpretations for different scenarios to pinpoint mechanisms of bio-physical interaction

Year 3.5

Thesis writing and journal publications

& Skills

The student will benefit from working with supervisors with different expertise on an interdisciplinary project, developing hands on experiences and skills in the state of art remote sensing and data analysis techniques such as UAV, satellite and artificial intelligence (AI) as well as modelling. The interactions with staff, students and postdocs at The Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology, Heriot-Watt University, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow and the IAPETUS2 community from 9 institutions and organizations.

The student will be a member of The Lyell Centre, participating in weekly research seminars and meetings. Lyell Centre currently comprises of 11 academic staff, 4 postdocs and 17 PhD students. All students in IAPETUS2 will be enrolled to receive a Postgraduate Certificate in Environmental Methods to demonstrate and recognize the importance of VITAE training. Working in the diverse scientific, geographical and socio-political settings of IAPETUS2 Partner institutions, the student will be trained to become an expert in communicating his/her research within and across disciplines, and to policy makers and the public.

References & further reading

Barbier, E. B., Hacker, S. D., Kennedy, C., Koch, E. W., Stier, A. C., & Silliman, B. R. (2011). The value of estuarine and coastal ecosystem services. Ecological monographs, 81(2), 169-193.
Nepf, H. M. (2012). Flow and transport in regions with aquatic vegetation. Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics, 44, 123-142.
Hansen, J. C., & Reidenbach, M. A. (2012). Wave and tidally driven flows in eelgrass beds and their effect on sediment suspension. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 448, 271-288.
Vandenbruwaene, W., S., Temmerman T. J., Bouma P. C., Klaassen M. B., de Vries D. P., Callaghan P., van Steeg F., Dekker L. A, van Duren E. Martini T., Balke G., Biermans J., Schoelynck P., Meire et al. (2011), Flow interaction with dynamic vegetation patches: Implications for biogeomorphic evolution of a tidal landscape, J. Geophys. Res., 116, F01008.

Further Information

Please contact Professor Qingping Zou at or Dr. Thorsten Balke at

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