11 March 2015

Lancaster University’s first female academic is still working at the university half a century later revealing the secrets of the UK’s ever changing coastline

When Dr Ada Phillips (now Pringle) started work at the newly established University of Lancaster  in 1964 she was breaking ground in many ways. 

She was the first of very few women appointed to the academic staff, and she was joining one of the world’s first departments devoted to studying the environment.

For a young coastal geomorphologist, who had been brought up by the sea, the new University was perfectly located.

“Lancaster is a wonderful place to study environmental sciences, because it has so many different landscapes nearby. 

“ There are the gritstone Bowland Fells, the high limestone terrain of Ingleborough, as well as the low limestone country of the Arnside and Silverdale area  and the old volcanic landscape of the central Lake District.”

But where Ada’s interest really lay was the coast.

“Morecambe Bay has a very large tidal range: half the bed of the Bay is exposed during high spring tides, so you can study the inter-tidal zone with its constantly changing channels and sandbanks”.

It was changes in the coastal landscape that fascinated Ada. In the late 1970s she realised that the wide Silverdale saltmarsh on the east side of the Kent estuary, was eroding quickly and that the changing tidal  channels might be responsible.  In 1984 she began monitoring the marsh erosion from fixed posts every month and obtained wind, tidal and river flow data to try to explain the varying erosion pattern..

“I intended to do it for five years but it was so interesting that I couldn’t let it go.”

When she retired in 1999, Lancaster University made her an Honorary Research Fellow , so that she could continue with her research in Morecambe Bay and also on the East Riding of Yorkshire coast, which she continues to this day.

“I kept measuring the Silverdale saltmarsh every month until 2010 when it   finally disappeared. Now I’m continuing to monitor the sandbanks and channels which replaced it.”

As the saltmarsh disappeared from one side of the Kent estuary, it started building up on the other side at Grange-over-Sands. In 2007 that began to erode and she started monitoring it monthly in 2009. . It became clear that the changes to the saltmarsh were being caused by the changing position of the main river channel.  Ada believes that in the future the process will reverse once again. What she wants to know is why the channel keeps changing, how it is being affected by the area’s big tidal range,  south-westerly storms causing storm surges and heavy rainfall affecting river flow.

“It’s important to have long range data to track and explain the changing landscape. There are not many of these long coastal data sets around the British Isles,”  she says.

Ada has carried out a long term study on the sand and shingle spit of  Spurn Head, on the East Yorkshire coast, near where she was brought up. She has been studying coastal changes there for more than 50 years and was very excited in December 2013 when Spurn Head was breached for the first time since 1849. She has also carried out coastal research in Tasmania and north-east Queensland, Australia.

Ada has seen many changes in the fledgling university which she was part of half a century ago. Its international reputation has grown, it is now in the UK’s top ten universities, environmental science has become mainstream, and today there are many female academics in the Lancaster Environment Centre. But some things have not changed.

“Lancaster University has always been a very stimulating and a very friendly place to work.” said Ada. And Ada is still monitoring the nearby coast, helping to reveal the secrets of our ever-changing coastline.