Increasing turbidity in the North Sea during the 20th century due to changing wave climate

Robert J. Wilson, Michael R. Heath

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


Data on Secchi disc depth (the depth at which a standard white disc lowered into the water just becomes invisible to a surface observer) show that water clarity in the North Sea declined during the 20th century, with likely consequences for marine primary production. However, the causes of this trend remain unknown. Here we analyse the hypothesis that changes in the North Sea's wave climate were largely responsible by causing an increase in the concentrations of suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the water column through the resuspension of seabed sediments. First, we analysed the broad-scale statistical relationships between SPM and bed shear stress due to waves and tides. We used hindcasts of wave and current data to construct a space–time dataset of bed shear stress between 1997 and 2017 across the northwest European Continental Shelf and compared the results with satellite-derived SPM concentrations. Bed shear stress was found to drive most of the inter-annual variation in SPM in the hydrographically mixed waters of the central and southern North Sea. We then used a long-term wave reanalysis to construct a time series of bed shear stress from 1900 to 2010. This shows that bed shear stress increased significantly across much of the shelf during this period, with increases of over 20 % in the southeastern North Sea. An increase in bed shear stress of this magnitude would have resulted in a large reduction in water clarity. Wave-driven processes are rarely included in projections of climate change impacts on marine ecosystems, but our analysis indicates that this should be reconsidered for shelf sea regions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1615–1625
Number of pages11
JournalOcean Science
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2019


  • wave energy
  • seabed sediments
  • remote sensing
  • suspended sediments
  • climate change


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