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New hope in fight against Morecambe's killing tide

10 Dec 2007

Maps generated by satellite images which use radar to penetrate thick cloud cover are to be used to prevent future tragedies in Morecambe Bay.

The initiative will assist the rescue service when responding to emergency calls from cockle pickers working on the perilous sands. Cockling still continues despite the drowning of 23 people in the bay's fast moving tides three and a half years ago.

Dr Kamie Kitmitto from The University of Manchester's national data centre, Mimas, announces the scheme today

Along with fellow researcher Gail Millin, the team begin collecting data to build a model to create maps forecasting how the mudflats change each month.

The maps will then be provided to the bay's emergency services.

The perilous tides - which are said to come in "as fast as a horse can run"- rearrange the seabed, making it almost impossible for search and rescue teams to predict the location of mudflats which emerge at low tide.

A difficult task in what is the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats and sand in the United Kingdom, covering a total area of 310 square km.

The maps will be assembled from data beamed at the speed of light by the European Space Agency (ESA) Envisat satellite 600 km out in space to stations in Scotland, Sweden and Italy.

The team will then use sophisticated software to convert images into maps which will be analysed and interpreted for changes in the structure and topography of the sand dunes.

Dr Kitmitto said: "Radar images are an as of yet untried method to map inter-tidal areas which are difficult to get to by land but whose conventional satellite images are obscured by cloud.

"In Morecambe, the mudflats change continually with the tide coming in and out so to understand this we need continuous imaging from the air.

"That can be done using aerial photography but it's just not economic or feasible to do on a continuous basis.

"Optical Satellites are fine as well but as we live in Britain so there's too much cloud for clear imaging -especially in the North West.

"Radar, on the other hand, penetrates the cloud cover to give excellent image maps - once the data has been treated by us.

"We hope this project will not only make the area safer for the cockle pickers of Lancashire and Cumbria but may eventually provide powerful help to needy people in other parts of the world as well."

Bill Byford, who volunteers with Bay Search and Rescue - says the maps will provide valuable information about the location of danger zones liable to be cut off quickly by the advancing sea.

He said: "We respond to emergency calls on the estuary mudflats using a Hagglund tracked amphibious vehicle.

"It's the only rescue operation of its kind in the country.

"So the information provided by these maps will be invaluable as it will be much easier for us to navigate this treacherous area.

"We hope that will save lives.

"Despite the important work we do, we are of course voluntarily funded and staffed so this help which is being provided free of charge will make a huge difference to our rescue capabilities.

"For more details about our work visit our website at www.baysearchandrescue.org.uk ."

Notes for editors

Dr Kitmitto and Gail Millin are available for comment

Bill Byford is available for comment.

Satellite images are available of the bay using radar. Please credit ESA/Envisat

  • Oversands (Morcambe bay): The pink part shows flat area of mudflats. Hilly mudflats are the yellow and black areas on the edge. The Zoom shows channels
  • Oversands AP (Morcambe Bay): Light yellow area is flat area of mudflats. Darker areas show hilly mudlfats
  •  Birkenhead AP (Morcambe Bay): Light yellow area is flat area of mudflats. Dark blue areas show hilly mudlfats
  • Solway (Scotland): Red areas show water and green yellow and black areas show mudflats
  • Solway AP (Scotland): Light blue areas flat area of mudflats and darker areas are hilly.

Other images:

  • Cocklepickers still risk their lives in the bay
  • Search and rescue amphibious vehicle
  • Bay search and rescue at work

Data was collected within the ESA category 1 project number 2999

For media enquiries contact:
Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 678
michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk