Connecting people and places through Andres Payo Garcia

What are the similarities and differences between Slapton Sands and Utah Beach?

Challenged by this question, is how 36 bright MsC/MPHIL Environmental Change and Management  students from the University of Oxford started their field trip along the Start Bay coastline in the South coast of Devon, England, UK. I am Andres Payo, lead researcher of the coastal resilience and marine shallow geohazards research line at the British Geological Survey, and I want to share with you my experience on how to communicate the importance of geology on issues that matters to people today.

On Sunday 30th of September 2018 I was driving from the nearby hotel to the Slapton Ley Nature Centre where I will meet the students to start the field trip with a one-hour introductory talk. I am not alone on this trip but with my wife Ruth and my son Andres to whom I am keen to show the beautiful coast of Start Bay. We have eaten our breakfast as fast as possible (you do not want to be late when not one, but 36 people are waiting for you) and gave us a good 40 minutes for what is only a 20 minutes’ drive along the coast. When we were only 2 minutes away from the Centre…surprise! the road was closed because it was damaged during the last storm (duh! I should have known that!). We have to turn around and spend another 20 minutes driving through an alternative route to the Centre to reach the place just right on time. Even before I start the describing the talk and walk, here you have the first issue that connect coastal processes (coastal erosion) with an everyday activity (driving from A to B). 
Why I started this talk with the question outlined in the title has two logical reasons. The first one is the historical connection between Slapton and the D-day (thanks to Andrew Hughes for pointing me towards the Operation Tiger facts). The second one is just because my experience with Oxford MsC students (this is the second time that I lead this talk and walk) tells me that they just love to be challenged. If you are wondering what are the main geomorphological similarities and differences between this two sites you will have to search the internet and look at the two pictures above in detail. In the internet you will find that one key similarity was the presence of the coastal lagoon (Slapton Ley) as the Germans did inundated the coast to make it more difficult for the troops to advance. There are not that many large lagoons in UK. By looking at the two pictures you will notice that there are no soldiers walking with their boots underwater in the gravelly Slapton but you see a few in the sandy Utah beach. As the sediment size becomes smaller so does the slope of the beach. That is why the boats could reach the very shoreline in Slapton but not in Utah beach.


To avoid this blog becoming too long, I will let the students describe what they think geology is before and after the day that we spent together. Before that, I would also like to acknowledge the great outlines that Dr Gerd Masselink from Plymouth University shared with me to help me deliver the talk and walk.

“As for my impressions on geology before and after the talk, there are two main points: a) geology is less static than I previously thought and b) geology does have an impact on a human timescale. Let me expand on those two points.

Even though I took the class on Coastal Landforms and Processes like I mentioned, I still thought of geology itself as more the study of static rocks, i.e. this rock is type A made of minerals xyz and this is type B made of minerals uvw (kind of what we did for the very beginning of the talk, on igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks). For some reason, I thought of geology as separate from wave action, erosion and sediment transport, which are dynamic processes. This field trip crystallised for me the links between the study of the rock parent material (what I thought geology was mostly about) and the study of dynamic changes the parent material undergoes.

Whenever I thought of geology, I would think on the geological timescale, which in the end made geology seem less relevant to the present environmental changes humans face. With this field trip however, especially the evident signs of beach erosion and the events at Hallsands, I came to the understanding that geology can have an impact within the human timescale, that it’s not just about how rocks formed thousands and thousands of years ago.”
“Before I thought geology was the study of rocks and the formation of landscapes over very long periods of time but I did not associate anything more specific with it. (I studied theoretical physics before coming here) The talk and the walk helped me understand several aspects better: For one, how findings from geology are relevant for present-day economic/political decisions (the building of seawalls, understanding why the US army chose Slapton to practice landing, the story of Hallsands). It was also fascinating to learn more about the methods used to analyse a coastline for example and to see "how a geologist looks at a coast" - which is a perspective I have never taken on a coastal walk before - which features are noticeable and which are important to understanding the development of a coastline in the past.”

“…my thoughts on geology before the trip (roughly) pertained to the study and classification of lithospheric properties, though I was unclear on its applications. Afterwards, I understood how the study of geology (and geomorphology) incorporated longer-term views of history and processes of change (ex. climate, volcanic, etc.) that I didn't realize before. Ultimately, your talk and our trip allowed for a greater appreciation of the applications of geologic study, including looking to the past, present, and future.”
“For me what stood out was the connection you showed between geomorphological processes/systems (in this case coastal, but presumably broader as well) and what we non-geologists normally think of when we think about geological processes. I think your part of the course was central to understand that geology is more more dynamic and changing than just looking at rocks to learn where they came from. And to see that it can also change on such a short timescale instead of only on a geological-epoch timeline, was really perspective-changing as well.”
“Prior to the Slapton trip my previous experience with geology was largely related to constructing a historical record and dating various sediments, what I found particularly fascinating about your talk in Slapton was that it framed geology in a way that was very operationally relevant. For example, the discussion surrounding how a knowledge of geology/research by geologists could have averted the disaster at Hallsands was very interesting and reframed how I see geology's role in solving modern day challenges. Overall, it was an informative, relevant, and well delivered program and we were all grateful to have your expertise on the trip. I think connecting geology to its current or possible contributions to public life is a great way of demonstrating it's importance and getting the attention of the general public.”

“I already studied geology back in Montreal, and we did some field trips, but I found the one you organized much more interesting. The component of geomorphology connected geology to the human scale rather than the purely geological scale, which often feels removed from any environmental management concerns. I also love when geology and geomorphology analyse the "forensics" of what happened millions of years ago, and uncover the mystery of ancient environments! To me, it is one of the most interesting parts of geology”
“Before the talk, I saw geology as a science that studied elements of our Earth that remain relatively constant.  After hearing about the Slapton case study from Andres, I realized that geology studies changing systems that not only affect the natural environment during long periods of time but can have great immediate effects on society if not taken into consideration during policy and decision making processes. The presentation and walk by the coast really helps to put these topics into perspective by seeing first-hand the interaction between geological processes, ecosystems, and coastal towns.”
“Geology, before the trip, appeared as something profound that geologists do. In past, I have struggled with identifying rocks on my own and identifying how geological processes shape any landscape. Hence, it was an uncanny feeling that morning to figure out the history of Slapton Ley by observing sediments and construe it piece by piece. To hold a flint or a slate and call it by its right name was a happy feeling. It seemed almost like a detective story where we were trying to put different pieces of the puzzle together and understand how the coastline of Slapton Ley was transformed over the course of time. Some aspects of the story were quite shocking and made me realize the fragility of life on our planet. The most memorable experience was to hold a Devonian sedimentary rock in Devon and find myself connected with the big history. At that moment, I saw myself, in the third person, as a geologist.”

If you have read the students feedback all the way until here and you are a geologist, you are probably feeling as happy as I am feeling 😉…any time that I might feel down, I will re-read this post to boost me up.