Ulster University scientist recognised as one of Ireland’s leading researchers
Prof Derek Jackson’s work spans climate change to guiding route of ESA’s Mars rover
Geomorphologist Prof Derek Jackson describes his involvement in the Mars mission as the product of a ‘bizarre twist’. Photograph: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University
Internationally renowned coastal geomorphologist Prof Derek Jackson of Ulster University’s school of geography and environmental sciences has been elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA).
The accolade recognises Prof Jackson’s pioneering work which ranges from aiding the development of responses to climate change to guiding the route of the European Space Agency’s Mars rover.
“The RIA is very prestigious and something scientists aspire to belong to,” says Prof Jackson.
He explains that geomorphology is a collective term covering physical landforms on the surface of the Earth that have been subjected to forces that change and shape them over time. “There are so many levels to it and the one I fit into is the coastal area – the nearshore shelf, beaches and sand dune systems. They are connected systems and shouldn’t be studied individually.”
Advances in computing power have supported the work of geomorphologists over the past 20 years but data availability, in Ireland at least, hasn’t necessarily kept pace.
“Scientists need good data and I am constantly frustrated by the relative lack of environmental data to hand in Ireland, particularly in comparison to England and Wales where they have coastal observatories constantly monitoring the coastlines.”
That situation applies to the whole island. “That leaves me in a place with a sporadic supply of data and I can only connect so many dots. I look with envy at what they can do in England and Wales and other European counties. They have such a wealth of data.
“We need science-led management of our coastlines and we need data for that. Both administrations in Ireland should be looking at their coastal resources and paying more attention to them. We are walking blind into the future and not realising the potential on our doorstep.
“We are also not fully aware of what the impact of climate change on our coasts might be.”
He welcomes moves by the Geological Survey of Ireland to look at pilot projects on coastal vulnerability but says what is required is much broader than mapping. “We need to come up with a plan of action for the Irish coast. We must be more proactive in protecting our coastal environmental resource. I urge both jurisdictions to look at setting up observatories to provide the data.”
His work has taken him around the world including to the Caribbean where he investigated the devastating impacts of Hurricane Irma on the islands of Antigua and Barbuda in 2017 and helped to form future emergency response plans for the region.
Ireland is not immune from big-scale events like that, he points out. His work on Five Finger Strand in Donegal saw him gather information regularly on the shape and height of the beach in different places. “When big storm events come along, we now have the coastline information that we didn’t have before. We could look at Storm Ophelia and measure its impact.”
He notes that the impact of a storm is dependent on a number of things, such as tides and the speed of the storm track. “It can be a minimal impact or a super erosion event.” But data is required to put Ireland in a better place to predict those impacts and put appropriate defences in place.
He describes his involvement in the Mars mission as the product of a “bizarre twist”.
“We got funding for a study on the dunes at Magilligan Point in Derry. We took software used in Formula 1 design to put a 3D shape in a computer model and subject it to simulated wind forces. We put sand dunes in and simulated the wind coming across the dunes.”
The subsequent academic paper attracted the attention of the space community in the United States and elsewhere. “We were quite surprised that no one had done it before. We were asked to do the same thing for the Mars mission. It’s a good thing that Mars is really well imaged. That enabled us to take 3D image of sand dunes and run the model. It gave us insights into how planetary winds move sand around on Mars.”
That work is funded by the UK Space Agency and Prof Jackson and his team will help identify area where the Mars rover will operate.
“The aim of the mission is to find life on Mars. We will look at potential sites and see if they are vulnerable to denuding winds to find a good place for the rover to drill. You don’t want to have to drill down through several metres of sand.”
The irony is not lost on him that we almost have more information on Mars than we do on the Irish coastline.