These huge waves tear boulders from the cliff faces and carry them inland, dumping them up to distances of 50m away in exposed areas such as Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles. This phenomenon is creating piles of boulders inland and causing substantial damage to the coastal edge.

But geomorphologist from the University of Glasgow, Dr Jim Hansom said their new research had suggested that these big waves were caused by regular storm waves, not distant tsunamis (extreme tidal waves caused by volcanic energy) as previous research had shown.

Dr Hansom confirmed to edie that the waves were getting bigger and more frequent, meaning that damage to the coastline would also increase over time. “We have around 100 waves of 20m and above offshore each year, which are powerful and often stave in the boughs of nearby oil rigs,” he said.

“We have always had big waves, but they are becoming more frequent. Over the last 30 years, the size of these waves has also increased by 10 to 15 metres, which is a fact that could easily be linked with climate change. The extremes of wave climate are increasing, and I predict that they are set to become far worse.”

However, he also stated that that these giant waves could prove to be very useful to the UK’s growing renewable energy market (see related story), even though there were currently no wave machines strong enough to withstand their force.

He said: “Developers need to stay in tune with the changing wave climate. But if they could build a wave machine that could stand up to these powerful waves then the huge force behind them could be harnessed to produce a lot of clean energy.”

Although the erosion problem will continue to get worse, Dr Hansom told edie that this was not an immediate cause for concern as it was a very slow process, and it would be a long time before it had serious implications on the people living in nearby areas.

Dr Adrian Hall, who also took part in the research, said: “It has taken a decade to remind the scientific community that extreme waves can surge to great heights on cliffs of the British Isles. It is important that we pin down just how often extreme waves happen – in perfect storms they can be killers.”

By Jane Kettle

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