Trapped Wind

The Fascinatingly Fortuitous Fossilization of Farts

There are people out there who don’t think palaeontology is astonishing, and they are quite wrong. To prove this, here is a 20 million-year-old cockroach fart, fossilized in amber:

Image from Poinar in Boucot & Poinar (2011) – (C) Routledge / CRC Press / Taylor & Francis.

The late lamented Dr WHO once told me “serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the famer’s daughter.” I think my version is now “looking for an expert on fungal nodules and finding the world’s oldest fossilized fart.”

It began on Twitter, where Stuart Petch sent myself and Paolo Viscardi an Instagram image of his friend Harry’s lump of amber, wondering if the white blobs in it might be fungus nodules. It meant nothing to me, but my dear friend Dr Leyla Seyfullah at the University of Vienna is an expert on fossil plants, fungi, and amber, so I Facebooked her for her thoughts.

Meanwhile, Paolo asked his friend Lee Davies, a mycologist at Kew, if he had any advice. After a bit of searching, Lee said that the oldest example of a fungal farm he could find was about 25 million years old, which was quite exciting, as this piece of Baltic amber was up to* 20 million years older!

A beetle in Baltic amber (image by Anders L. Damgaard, from Wikimedia Commons)

Over on Facebook, though, Leyla was swift to reply, and this cranked my excitement levels up to 11. “Termites eat dead plants,” she said. “To be able to digest dead plants, you need masses of gut microbiota. As the dead plants are digested by the gut microbiota, gases are produced. What you are seeing are lots of termites with clear fossilized farts…”

Sorry, hold your fossilized termites one moment, Dr Seyfullah. Did you just say FOSSILIZED FARTS?

“…as their gut microbiota kept breaking down food after the termites got stuck in the resin. Sometimes the termites ripped themselves a bit as they struggled in the sticky resin, so the gases escaped through any exit out of the termite.”

She added that, despite termites being ‘notoriously gassy’ not *all* the bubbles were of digestive origin (plenty could just be trapped air bubbles), but by that point I was miles away, in paroxysms of resinated guffery, searching for ‘fossilized farts‘ on Google.

Reader, I found some, in a chapter by George Poinar in the Fossil Behavior Compendium he wrote with Art Boucot in 2011. They are from the amber deposits of the Dominican Republic, which Poinar has studied in great detail and which Seyfullah et al. (2018) describe as being 16 to 18 million years old.

An ant (or maybe a termite?) in Dominican amber (image from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Brocken Inaglory)

Melissa Stewart’s Blasts of Gas then mentioned that Lynn Margulis had analysed the chemistry of fossil termite farts in 2002, so I had to dig out that scientific paper. ‘Spirochete and protist symbionts of a termite (Mastotermes electrodominicus) in Miocene amber’ by Wier et al. (2002) focusses primarily on the micro-organisms preserved in the termite’s gut. The Dominican amber fossilization is exceptional, extraordinary.

The authors do, however, mention that the amber termites are ‘invariably preserved with bubbles that emanate from thoracic or abdominal spiracles’ and that the bubbles contain ethylene, methane, and carbon dioxide.

“We propose that these gases were generated in large quantity by the unique hindgut microbial community, and exuded as the insect was immersed in the viscous resin” (Wier et al., 2002). I never doubted Leyla for a moment, of course, but it’s always handy to have a precedent: fossil farts from a 16-18 million year-old termite!

But yes, it’s only 16 to 18 million years old. The Baltic amber termites are at least 7 million years older, and more likely at least 16 million years older. The oldest fossil fungal farm? The oldest termite ? The oldest fossil fart? The possibilities are effervescent.

In conclusion, a Facebook reply to a Twitter post about an Instagram photo confirms that palaeontologists should definitely use social media, because the most amazing things can bubble up as a consequence. I just wish I’d know about fossil farts when I wrote this article for the Conversation.

Startlingly, this isn’t the Lego version of me.


*according to Kettunen et al. (2018), Baltic amber can be between 25 and 43 million years old, whilst Seyfullah et al. (2018) state that it is 34-48 million years old, so there’s quite a lot of potential variation in this figure. Such are the joys of biostratigraphy.

Rolling with dinosaurs

After Chalking With Dinosaurs with Burnsy on BBC Radio Humberside this week, I intended my next post to be on the Megalosaurus trackways of Oxfordshire. However, my better half then showed me this video:

We immediately found ourselves thinking: “That would be cool with dinosaur feet!”

Then we thought “Actually, it would be cooler with correctly sized dinosaur feet that could produce some sort of trackway…”

So this is what we did…

1) Get together all the kit you might possibly need (different sized tubes for rolling, cardboard for making feet with, pens and pencils, tape measures, scissors, cocktail sticks/kebab skewers to attach the feet to the rolling tube).

All the kit you need to make a rolling dinosaur foot trackmaker!

2) Decide that the smallest tube needs to be an ornithopod, the medium-sized tube a theropod, and the largest tube a sauropod. Measure the diameters of the tubes to work out the ‘hip height’ of the dinosaur (the fully extended length of the leg when the foot hits the ground), and divide that number by 4 to come up with a proportional size for the foot.

Tube diameter (leg length) = 45 mm, so foot length = 11.25 mm

Tube diameter (leg length) = 94 mm, so foot length = 23.5 mm

2b) Then remember that sauropods aren’t quite the same as ornithopods or theropods, and consult a paper by Bernardo J. Gonzalez Riga to come up with some better-looking numbers. Decide to save the sauropod rolling trackway making for next time.

3) For a bit of ancestral accuracy, use the feather of an extant theropod to colour in the tiny feet of your rolling theropod trackmaker.

4) Cut out the feet, tape each of them onto a short bit of cocktail stick, then tape them to the inside of the rolling tube. Then realize they’re not thick enough to touch the ground when the tube rolls, so take them off again and add more card until they are. We did this for the ‘ornithopod’ on the small tube, though the challenge of cutting out small cardboard feet accurately means they are best described simply as tridactyl.

5) Find a reasonably large tray and cover with some kind of soft sediment. In this case, I used gardeners’ silver sand, but I’m sure flour or salt or sugar could work.

6) Roll the foot-bearing tube across the sand to see if it works, and – hey presto! – a dinosaur trackway. Yes, ok, it’s a one-legged dinosaur with an implausibly wide gait, but this is a work in progress!

A dinosaur trackway made in fine-grained sand by a rolling tube on my kitchen table. Fossilization potential: low.

7) To work out how fast the dinosaur was moving, measure the stride length. Here it was 150mm, give or take:

Trackway stride length, measured from heel to heel.

8) Divide stride length by leg length to get the relative stride length (RSL). If the RSL ratio is 2 or less, it is walking. If it is 2.0 to 2.9, it is trotting, and if it is 2.9 or more, it is running. The measured stride length here (150 mm) divided by the leg length (45 mm) yields an RSL value of 3.33, which means…

(I’m not aware of any evidence from the trace fossil record of tiny, wide dinosaurs hopping at high speed, but at least now we know what kind of trackway we’re looking for.)

Another – probably more genuinely ichnologically useful – thing is that, even with just two footprints made by the same cardboard foot in uniform dry sand, we can see that there is variation in track morphology. The second footprint is a much more accurate representation of the cardboard foot than the first one.

Footprint 1 of the tiny rolling dinosaur trackway.

Footprint 2 of the tiny rolling dinosaur trackway.

I will write this up as an activity sheet in due course, and get back on with chalking those dinosaur trackways, like I promised.

 

Chalking With Dinosaurs, part 4

I don’t even work on dinosaurs, and here I am, yet again, writing about the crunching great lizard monsters and their footprints. It’s all a very elaborate ruse to get you hooked on ichnology, such that I can then start making videos such as Crawling With Ragworms and Irrigating With Thalassinids.

This is the good stuff! Dr Richard Callow admires the Jurassic fossil crustacean burrows of Filey Brigg.

Hey ho, it’s all good fun, and here we are with part 4 of Chalking With Dinosaurs, where we try to work out what kind of dinosaur made the big Burniston Bay footprint described by Martin Whyte and colleagues in 2006, and which hopefully you’ve chalked onto your yard/alley/driveway by now.

As I mentioned last time, there are plenty of Jurassic dinosaur footprints to be found on the Yorkshire Coast, but there are remarkably few dinosaur body fossils. Martin Whyte, Mike Romano and Will Watts summarized this in their 2010 paper, for which the key phrases are ‘scarce’ and ‘largely indeterminate’. In the splendid ‘Yorkshire’s Jurassic World‘ exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum there is a single sauropod vertebra, which can’t be assigned to a species, and is therefore known as Alan.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t speculate reasonably about what might have made the big Burniston footprint. The evidence presented by Whyte et al. (2006) suggests strongly that the footprint is that of a large theropod, and Middle Jurassic rocks in Oxfordshire have yielded fossils of exactly that:

Megalosaurus! (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Might Megalosaurus, the original dinosaur, have made the big Burniston fossil footprint?

It seems a very good candidate, being of the right age and right dinosaur group. Interestingly, though, the calculated leg length we obtained from the Burniston footprint (2.2 metres, after Whyte et al‘s (2006) estimate of the foot having been 0.55m long, and Alexander’s (1976) equation of dinosaur hip height being four times its foot length) is longer than that known from fossils of Megalosaurus.

Megalosaurus was big, but its legs don’t appear to have been 2.2 metres long, even in the largest specimen (image from Wikimedia Commons).

So, is Megalosaurus not big enough? Did Yorkshire have a mega-Megalosaurus, or is there a possibility our calculations might be awry? Could the foot length obtained from the big Burniston footprint be an over-estimate?

To investigate this further, we need to stay in Oxfordshire, and combine the body fossils of Megalosaurus with the trace fossils of Ardley Quarry, and the research of Julia Day and colleagues, published in 2002 and 2004. And to really annoy you all, I’m going to save that for Chalking With Dinosaurs, part 5, when we can also work out how fast a large Middle Jurassic theropod dinosaur might have been able to run…

 

Chalking With Dinosaurs, part 3

On Saturday May 9th 2020, as promised, I chalked a load of dinosaur footprints onto my driveway.

Two cardboard cut-outs of Yorkshire dinosaur footprints, and some chalk.

My video below explains what I did, and what a single footprint can tell us about the tracemaker. WARNING: this video features some low-quality singing.

If you want to go chalking with dinosaurs, here’s my checklist:

1. Choose a footprint you want to chalk. I decided to start with the big Burniston footprint described by Martin Whyte and colleagues in 2006. However, you might want to chalk a completely different dinosaur footprint, or your own footprint, or invent the footprint of a creature even more fantastical than a dinosaur.

2. Draw the footprint onto a piece of card and cut it out, to keep your footprint chalk drawings consistent.

My cardboard version of the big Burniston footprint (Whyte et al. 2006), with the interpreted size of the dinosaur foot highlighted, and my left foot shown for scale.

3. Get your chalks, work out where you want your footprint to go, and start drawing. If you don’t have a driveway, an alleyway or a yard will do just as well. If you don’t have outdoor space for chalking, draw the footprints onto paper indoors.

4. Measure the footprint. Is it the same size as the tracemaker’s foot? This can be quite hard to determine from a trace fossil, but the answer is often no. Martin Whyte and colleagues decided that, although the large Burniston footprint was 0.61m long by 0.49m wide, the squidgification* around the edges of the footprint suggested that the dinosaur foot itself was probably 0.55m long by 0.40m wide (hence my annnotation in the figure above).

*technical term

5. From the size of the tracemaker’s foot, you can then estimate the size of its leg. How? Well, take some measurements of your own leg. My foot is 0.265m long, and my hip height is 0.91m, so that gives a ratio of hip height (h) to FL (Foot Length) as follows:

h = 3.43FL

If that ratio was true for the Burniston dinosaur, its foot length of 0.55m would yield a hip height of 1.89m (which is taller than me!).

A Tyrannosaurus rex and a 1.8m tall human (image from Wikimedia Commons). I am 1.8m tall.

6. However, I am not a dinosaur. It is much better to use measurements made from dinosaur skeletons. R. McNeill Alexander did exactly this in the 1970s and came up with a slightly different equation for dinosaurs:

h = 4FL

That would make the hip height of the big Burniston tracemaker 2.2 metres, which is taller than most humans.

7. Unsurprisingly, then, the big Burniston footprint was made by a big beast, but what kind of beast exactly? The three-toed (tridactyl) print with a V-shaped heel and distinct claw marks strongly suggests it was a theropod (hence the title of Whyte and colleagues’ 2006 paper). However, there are no Burniston bones to confirm this, and no skeletons of Middle Jurassic theropods are known from Yorkshire. So what kind of theropod was it?

Examples of some of the largest theropod dinosaurs (image from Wikimedia Commons).

For that, you’ll have to wait for Chalking With Dinosaurs, part 4!

Chalking With Dinosaurs, Part 2

A chalk-outlined theropod footprint from Utah, with my left foot for scale.

As GeoWeek 2020 starts on Saturday May 9th, so does Chalking With Dinosaurs. And since we can’t all go to the Dinosaur Coast this weekend and hunt fossilized footprints, let’s bring the dinosaurs to our streets, our driveways, and our houses.

My video below gives an introduction to Chalking With Dinosaurs, and the science of ichnology. The Jurassic rocks of Yorkshire really are among the world’s best for finding dinosaur footprints!

 

Where exactly can you find footprints (once the Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted, of course)? This is explained in my second video, below, but from Port Mulgrave in the north to Yons Nab in the south, the North Yorkshire coast has loads of places where dinosaur tracks have been discovered.

 

For an introduction to the Jurassic geology of Yorkshire, John Powell’s 2010 presidential paper for the Yorkshire Geological Society is always a good starting place. If you then want to explore the Yorkshire dinosaur track sites in greater detail, the 2003 paper by Mike Romano and Martin Whyte (also a presidential address to the Yorkshire Geological Society!) is the place to go.

But if you want to get some dinosaur footprints chalked on your street, and then learn how we interpret such fossils and work out how dinosaurs might have behaved, you’ll have to follow the hashtag #ChalkingWithDinosaurs over the next few days, mostly on Twitter.

All together now: “Open the door, get on the floor, everybody chalk a dinosaur…”

 

Chalking With Dinosaurs

The Yorkshire Coast is one of the best places in the world to walk with dinosaurs. The Jurassic rocks exposed between Staithes and Scarborough have yielded huge numbers of fossil dinosaur footprints, and scientists from all over the world come to North Yorkshire to better understand how dinosaurs lived and behaved.

My left foot, standing on a Middle Jurassic dinosaur footprint on the North Yorkshire Coast.

In the absence of being able to go and look at the rocks ourselves, I will be leading an online activity called “Chalking with Dinosaurs” during GeoWeek 2020, which runs from Saturday May 9th to Sunday May 17th 2020.

The activity will begin at 1530 BST on Saturday May 9th, and aims to tell people more about the rocks and fossils of Jurassic North Yorkshire, describe a few of the fossil footprints that have been found there, and – using some pavement chalk on my own driveway – explain how to make your own dinosaur trackways, and then interpret them. That way, when we’re finally able to get back out onto the coast, you’ll be able to give those Jurassic beasts a run for their money.

Oh yes, and if you have a go at #ChalkingWithDinosaurs yourselves, I have some prizes for the best entries received during GeoWeek 2020!

How to map volcanoes!

This Thursday, March 5th, Professor Kathy Cashman FRS of the University of Bristol will give the 4th annual John & Anne Phillips Lecture at the University of Hull. Professor Cashman’s talk will focus on “Mapping lava flows from the ground, air and space” and introduce the audience to her ground-breaking research into how volcanoes work.

Mauna Loa from the air (image from WIkimedia Commons).

Maps of lava flow age, extent and morphology have long been an important source of information for anticipating future flow hazards. Recent advances in technology, however, are providing new ways to image and map lava flows in real time. Professor Cashman will review some of these techniques and demonstrate ways in which these new data aid interpretation of past events, management of ongoing eruptions and forecasts of future lava flow hazards.
 
Professor Cashman is Professor Volcanology in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/earthsciences/people/katharine-v-cashman/index.html. Her talk is a free public lecture, and will be held in Lecture Theatre A of the Robert Blackburn Building, University of Hull, from 3pm.

 

About the John and Anne Phillips Lecture
 
Kindly supported by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, the John & Anne Phillips Prize is awarded each summer to the final-year Geology Hull student producing the best geological mapping dissertation. Alongside this, the annual John & Anne Phillips Lecture sees an invited speaker come to Hull to talk about their research on a geological mapping topic. Previous speakers have included Professor Sanjeev Gupta (Imperial) on mapping the geology of Mars, and Dr Kathryn Goodenough (British Geological Survey) on mapping mineral resources in Africa.
 
John and Anne Phillips were the nephew and niece of William ‘Strata’ Smith, pioneer of geological mapping. Both John and Anne built on their uncle’s legacy, with significant contributions to geology of their own. John is quite well-known, as the first Keeper of Geology at the Yorkshire Museum, later Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford, and as the person who formalized the concept of the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras. Anne is much less-celebrated, but was integral to her brother’s successes, and carried out fieldwork of her own in the Malvern Hills, proving that the then Director of the British Geological Survey’s interpretation of the geology was wrong. Her work has been celebrated as part of the Trowelblazers project: https://trowelblazers.com/anne-phillips/

‘GEMS of North Yorkshire’ project launches in Scarborough

North Yorkshire’s rocks, fossils, and changing environments will be the stars of a newly formed science project based in Scarborough. ‘GEMS of North Yorkshire’ brings together the University of Hull’s Geology Hull and North Yorkshire Partnership Hub teams, and Scarborough-based education and outreach specialist, Hidden Horizons. The project will use school activities and public events to promote geological, environmental, and marine science (GEMS), with the aim of widening participation in these fields.

Dr Liam Herringshaw, Geology Hull lecturer, said “the ‘GEMS of North Yorkshire’ project offers a terrific opportunity to engage North Yorkshire schools and residents with the amazing landscapes on their doorstep. It’s really exciting to be working with Hidden Horizons and the University of Hull’s North Yorkshire Partnership Hub to deliver the activities.  We will also team up with Scarborough & North Yorkshire Children’s University to provide learning opportunities for primary-aged children.”

Starting in 2020, the project will offer a series of school activities and public events, delivered alongside educational web resources uncovering some of the GEMS of North Yorkshire.

For further details, contact Rich Adams (North Yorkshire Partnership Hub) on 01723 383884 (Twitter: @UniofHull_NYPH); Liam Herringshaw (Geology Hull) on 01482 465349 (Twitter: @GeologyHull), or Will Watts (Hidden Horizons) on 01723 817017 (Twitter: @H_Horizons).

About Geology Hull

Geology Hull is the geology teaching and research team in the Department of Geography, Geology and Environment at the University of Hull. We won the university Faculty of Science and Engineering’s Outstanding Team award in 2018, and our degree programmes were ranked 7th in the UK in the 2020 Guardian University Guide.

About the North Yorkshire Partnership Hub

The University of Hull’s North Yorkshire Partnership Hub is based in Scarborough. Our team is dedicated to building active partnerships to shape a brighter future for North Yorkshire. Our programmes in primary and secondary schools help to raise aspirations through our Scarborough & North Yorkshire Children’s University and the North Yorkshire Coast Higher Education Collaboration (NYCHEC). Our post-16 work helps to provide students with information, advice and guidance to help them make the best decisions for their future. Alongside a range of partners from business, the public and charity sectors, we’re helping our region fulfil its potential.

About Hidden Horizons

Established in 2013 by Will Watts, Hidden Horizons offer an exciting range of public and school events based on the outstanding geology and natural history of North Yorkshire. With sessions covering fossil hunting, stargazing, Forest School, Beach School, Bushcraft and more there really is something for everyone, with each session led by passionate experts in their field including three University of Hull graduates. In addition to the public and school sessions the company provides consultancy services to museums and heritage organisations including exhibition and interpretation support.  Hidden Horizons also operates a sister company, GeoEd Ltd, one of the world leaders in the creation of replica fossils for education and museum settings. 

The sedimentary environments of Hessle Foreshore

This page will be of interest solely to students of the University of Hull module 600260 Advanced Sedimentary Environments. If you are a student of said module, congratulations, you have found this webpage! As a reward, here is a link to the only publication I can find as a pdf on Google Scholar that mentions the terms ‘sediment’, ‘environment’ and ‘Hessle Foreshore’: http://www.ilankelman.org/phd/IlanKelmanPhDDissertation.pdf. Enjoy!

Planed-off ripples in muddy sediments near the Humber Bridge, Hessle Foreshore, East Riding of Yorkshire.

A brief history of Scarborough landslides

In the summer of 2018, I was filmed in Scarborough by a TV production company making a series for Channel 5 about Sinkholes. As the episode has never been broadcast, I can only assume my performance was so dreadful, or so controversial, that it cannot be permitted to see the light of day, but I thought I’d blog about it anyway.

Warning! Non-landslide expert alert!

It all began when a Hull colleague of mine was contacted by the production company, who were trying to find a geologist who could tell them about coastal landslides in Scarborough. The 25th anniversary having just passed, I assumed the company was interested in the Holbeck Hall Hotel landslide. However, when I talked with them on the phone, this wasn’t the case. They’d heard only about a landslide in the spring of 2018, which I had to confess I knew nothing about.

From such inauspicious beginnings, our conversation piqued their interest in the Holbeck landslide, and mine in what was going on now. Both parties went away to do a bit more research, and when we spoke again a day or two later, it seemed there was enough of a story for them to want to do some filming, with me, in the South Bay.

Pretty much the best view in the world.

The following week, I found myself in the legendary Clock Café, holding a plastic box containing a miniature reconstruction* of the local geology. After nearly 40 years of yomping up and down the South Cliff on family holidays, suddenly I was there to explain its geological structure to the world. Well, to the viewers of Channel 5 at least.

(*comprising two beach cobbles, builders’ sand, some Plasticine and a Lego hotel. Sadly it will not make the cut.)

Now, I am definitely not a proper expert on coastal landslides, so – if the show is ever shown – writing this is perhaps a pre-emptive strike against looking like a dingbat on national telly**.

**again

Nonetheless, I found the research really interesting, and turned up a history of landslides in Scarborough and the Yorkshire Coast that people might want to know about, So, rather than have it all go to waste, here are my findings.

A Brief History of Scarborough Landslides

Although the East Yorkshire coast is eroding much more rapidly, landslides are common in North Yorkshire, as summarized by E. Mark Lee in Chapter 6 of his co-authored book Geomorphological Processes and Landscape Change: Britain in the Last 1000 Years (Higgett and Lee 2008).

In 1682, he notes, at Runswick Bay, “the entire village slipped into the sea”. On Christmas Eve, 1787, there was then a “great landslide” at Haggerlythe, Whitby, and in 1829, at Kettleness, “the whole village slid into the sea”.

For Scarborough’s South Bay, the landslide story begins in 1737, when buildings in the Spa area, which had only recently been rebuilt, were destroyed. No major events seem to have occurred for the next 250-odd years, until by far the most dramatic landslide in Scarborough’s 20th Century history – the collapse of the cliff beneath the Holbeck Hall Hotel in June 1993.

The landscaped site of the 1993 Holbeck Hall Hotel landslide (from Wikimedia Commons)

A detailed webpage on the Holbeck Hall Landslide is provided by the British Geological Survey, so there’s no sense in me rehashing their expert information. However, it is worth pointing out that the rotational landslide occurred because soft Ice Age sediments, into which rainwater can seep and pond quite readily, sit on top of well-lithified Middle Jurassic bedrock. The Scarborough Spa marks a spring line, where the waters can seep out, but if – as in 1993 – the volumes of water are large, and they accumulate rapidly, their escape can be catastrophic.

I found this photograph of the hotel (from a BGS blogpost marking the 25th anniversary of the landslide), taken by the British Geological Survey immediately post-landslide, particularly amazing, though the classic footage is this video, starring Richard Whiteley:

Countdown to collapse

And so we move to 2018, and the South Cliff landslip.

It appears that the incident the production team had been alerted to had occurred over the weekend of March 17th/18th 2018, following the wild weather of late February and early March. A retaining wall below the Clock Café was pushed onto the chalets beneath, leaving cracked pavements above it, the wall leaning towards the sea, and the listed chalets listing. It attracted a bit of press coverage:

20th March 2018 (Scarborough News) “Landslip warning in Scarborough

21st March 2018 (BBC) – large crack appears in Scarborough cliff path.

19th April 2018 (BBC) South Cliff cracks ‘could take a year to repair

25th May 2018 (Daily Mail) – Scarborough beach chalets in danger of crumbling into the sea.

South Cliff chalets, Scarborough, summer 2018.

In June 2018, with rumours abounding that the Clock Cafe would have to be demolished, a series of new announcements were made. Firstly, the Clock Café demolition rumours were quashed. Then the Scarborough Borough Council announced that the incident was an “isolated wall movement that occurred in the spring behind the South Bay chalets”. It wasn’t a landslide, or a landslip. Overlooking my uncertainty over whether landslides and landslips are one and the same, perhaps it should simply be called a slope failure.

Either way, in late November 2018, a new movement of soil behind the wall caused further collapse of the chalets, and the borough council decided to demolish them as a matter of urgency. In February 2019, it was reported that they would be coming down imminently, but I’ve not been down to check.

Cordoned off South Cliff chalets (photo credit: me)

At the same time that the South Cliff chalets slope failure occurred, remediation works were about to begin, to try and stabilize the cliffs above the Spa Complex, a short distance to the north. This South Cliff Slope Stabilization Scheme was not set to include the Clock Café area, but instead try to secure the long-term stability of the gardens above the economically and historically important Spa area. As explained in an October 2016 consultancy report:

“The South Cliff upon which the proposed works area lies is inherently unstable…Ground modelling and stability analyses undertaken previously have found that the slopes are close to failure, with potential for both shallow and deep-seated failure. Such failure could result in the loss of parts of the Spa Gardens, damage to the Esplanade and damage to or complete loss of The Spa Complex. There is also clear potential for injury and loss of life.”

The contract was awarded to Balfour Beatty, and work began at the end of May 2018. The most recent update from the contractor reports that all is ‘going well‘. Presumably it has to be finished by March 2020, as a £7m South Cliff gardens regeneration scheme is due to begin then.

Are you putting any money on these gardens lasting a century? (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Given the predictions of warmer, wetter weather, higher sea-levels, and increased storm frequency, one can only wonder how this coastline will cope with Anthropocene climate change. It was only just over a decade that a fairly large landslide occurred at Knipe Point, at the northern end of Cayton Bay, and the last couple of years have seen numerous small to moderate collapses. Whether it ever makes it onto screen, one of my conclusions for the TV company was that, when it comes to landslides on this stretch of coastline, geologically it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Still, should you want to keep an eye on things, the National Landslide Database is probably the place to go.