It sounds too good to be true: just stick some tubes in the beach and it will grow, no need for expensive beach nourishments to sustain those as part of your coastal protection. But this is what Danish inventor Poul Jakobsen promises his invention is capable of. How it works, he doesn’t know exactly himself, but he can show successful projects all over the world. Dutch constructor Royal BAM Group got interested and sat up a test in cooperation with Rijkswaterstaat, the department which is responsible for coastal protection in The Netherlands. BAM offered to do this test on a no-cure-no-pay basis.
Between 2006 and 2011 the experiment, project Ecobeach, took place close to Egmond aan Zee on the North Sea coast. Looking back at the results, scientists are not convinced that there was any positive contribution to the growth of the beach which can be attributed to the tubes. Rijkswaterstaat however, was so pleased with the results that they paid out a big bonus to the constructor – because there is no definitive proof that the tubes didn’t work.
Pressure Equalizing Modules
Jakobsen calls his tubes Pressure Equalizing Modules (PEM) and promotes his innovation with his company Skagen Innovation Centre. The PEM are plastic tubes, 2 to 3 meter long, of which the lower half is permeable to water. They are buried vertically in the sand of a beach in rows perpendicular to the shoreline with a distance of 10 meter between them. Over the whole width of the beach, these rows are placed at an intermediate distance of about 100 meters.
According to Jakobsen the PEM will influence the drainage of the beach between high and low tides. The beach surface will dry quicker when the water retracts at low tide. It will be dry for a longer period of time and it might be that this makes it easier for loose sand to be blown up to the dunes. But there are several more theories which might explain the claimed effect. For instance, locked up air in the sand might escape more easily via the air vents in the tube. This way the sand gets denser and therefore waves rolling over the beach would do less eroding damage as before.
All these ideas about possible working mechanisms have the problem that they imaginably can produce local effects but lack a plausible explanation why the effects could affect a whole beach when there seem to be so few PEM involved. Whether it really works in practice is also not easily determined. The natural variability of growth and decline of a beach is big and therefore it is difficult to attribute an observed effect to an intervention when you don’t measure over a long period.
On his website, Jakobsen only shows his success stories, but they are not really convincing. The evidence consists mainly of photographed beaches before and after insertion of the PEM. Whether these photographs were taken under similar circumstances, like the tide, wind and other atmospheric parameters, can not be easily checked. Although there is a lot of doubt, the invention attracts the attention of some scientists and construction companies.
Royal BAM Group is one of those companies willing to look into the PEM and starts the Ecobeach project in 2006 together with Rijkswaterstaat. The test looks well thought through. On one stretch of beach, the PEM are put in place and a similar stretch not far away will be used as a control. If the tubes really work, you would expect that the test area accumulates more sand than the reference area.
Also, scientists from Delft University and research institute Deltares are involved in the project. They will monitor the beaches and analyze the collected data to find out whether the system works. The PEM are drilled into the beach starting from November 2006 and the project website goes online. Costs of the project are about one million euro of which almost half is used for installation, licenses, research, maintenance and removal of the PEM, and the rest is for costs like monitoring and analysis.
After one year an intermediate report shows up. From this, we learn that the test period had not been long enough to see a trend break and to draw any conclusions. The natural dynamics involved are huge, there was, for instance, a big storm in January 2007 and an unusual period with mostly easterly winds up to May. But they knew this before the start and that was exactly the reason that Ecobeach was planned to last for at least three years. So, wait and see.
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’
In Denmark, a test had been underway for a longer time already at Hvide Sands. Soon scientists and the Danish Kystdirektorat (Coastal Authority) started to doubt the system. A commission was installed to investigate the findings, because Jakobsen didn’t agree with the negative conclusions. Professor Hans Burcharth, who had been positive on the invention earlier on and was installed as a member of this commission by nomination of Jakobsen, now came with a negative judgement as well (2008). Also, other professors and experts dismissed the system as not functional (reports at the Kystdirektorat).
But all this didn’t upset Jakobsen too much. Of course, these professors are paid by the Kystdirektorat to draw these conclusions, only his own reports are scientifically sound, he stated. Somehow Danish politicians gave Jakobson the benefit of the doubt; running tests were continued and new projects prepared. However, a change of power after elections and a new minister on the crucial department meant the end for the experiments in November 2011.
Also on other places in the world, where Jakobsen is busy selling his PEM, his behaviour annoys people. In Australia, a negative report came out, but Jakobsen ‘refutes’ this with one of his own. Countering criticism directly and fiercely seems his favourite modus operandi. The following news item of Danish television shows the Coastal Authority finally removing the tubes from Hvide Sande in January 2013. On his turn, Jakobsen is drilling new tubes in the sand only a short distance away. Following this, Jakobsen was reported to the police for placing the tubes without permission (‘beach vandalism’). And Jakobsen reported the Kystdirekorat to the police for damaging the existing installation of the PEM. Isn’t that nice?
The tubes from Ecobeach were eventually removed in November 2011. A final evaluation, however, was not to be seen soon. A friend of mine, living in Denmark, asked Rijkswaterstaat several times for the final report which was scheduled for July 2011. But the date of publication kept being postponed. The Ecobeach website didn’t show any real news since September 2008 (see Postscriptum). I myself contacted Rijkswaterstaat in March 2013 and was told that the report should see the light in the second quarter of 2013. It didn’t.
Now it has become clear that we will not see a real final evaluation any time soon. They did, however, publish a brochure (dated October 2013) for public use, which tells about the results of the experiment and the special cooperation between Rijkswaterstaat and BAM group. The brochure (pdf) was sent to my friend when asking again for a final report in November 2013, but it has only very recently been published on the Ecobeach site.
From the brochure (my translation):
The results up to now and the contribution of Ecobeach to these results, are hard to explain with existing scientific knowledge. This leads to much discussion, in Denmark as well as in The Netherlands. That a possible effect cannot be explained with existing theories quickly leads to the conclusion that it cannot work. The results however are very promising. That’s why Rijkswaterstaat is interested in further research.
Commisioned by Rijkswaterstaat, knowledge institute Deltares did the analysis of the results. Also over this analysis a discussion arose over the interpretation and conclusions you can draw from it. Rijkswaterstaat en BAM do not agree with all interpretations and substantiations from the analysis of Deltares.
Interesting this dispute. It had already become clear that there is a difference of opinion between BAM and the scientists involved in the project. The thesis from one of the Master students of Delft University who did research on this project is, in the online version (pdf), preceded by three pages of BAM. In those pages, BAM states not to agree with certain conclusions drawn in the thesis.
The final report of Deltares coul be found online since November 2012, but Rijkswaterstaat didn’t bother to tell me or my friend about its existence. Deltares is quite a bit less positive in this report:
As both areas exhibit similar trend breaks, the evidence for identifying and quantifying a possible effect of the Ecobeach system is inconclusive.
The possible influence of the PEM on the local beach and dune morphology falls within the range of natural variability in the study area.
In this report, we can also read that according to the experts from Deltares the observed growth of the beaches is in agreement with the expected growth due to the ‘nourishments’ which had been done in 2004 and 2005 just a little south and north of the Ecobeach stretches.
From this report, I cannot draw any other conclusion than that there has not been found any real indication that the tubes contribute in a positive way to beach growth. This concurs with the impression formed by all the other scientific papers I have read on the invention by Jakobsen. So why is Rijkswaterstaat so positive in their brochure? Do we miss something?
Difference of opinion is worth a bonus
Of course, I tried to find out what the basis is of this (scientific) dispute between Rijkswaterstaat and BAM on the one hand and Deltares on the other hand. Deltares didn’t feel like giving any more information: all waht they had to say about the project was to be found in their report, they let me know. I also contacted Rijkswaterstaat (again) on this issue. And I also asked them what the exact deal was regarding to the bonus BAM could receive if the project would succeed. In the brochure this was mentioned several times (my translation):
It is special that these financial arrangements were made without all details being nailed down and without knowing to which result the research might lead. It was also the first time that this type of financial incentive was used in an innovation project of Rijkswaterstaat.
Both BAM and Rijkswaterstaat look at the financial incentive (the ‘bonus arrangement’) in the contract as a positive stimulus to cooperate intensively.
Unfortunately, Rijkswaterstaat was not willing to share any more details on the dispute and the answer I got was almost as brief as the one from Deltares:
Difference of opinion between RWS & BAM on the one hand and Deltares on the other hand
The research was done from May 2005 until October 2011. Certainly promising results have been found, like more sand and a change of composition of the sand during the test period. Deltares cannot prove that Ecobeach doesn’t work based on the research. Rijkswaterstaat and BAM want to interpret the effects of Ecobeach and therefore want to follow up the research.
The payment of BAM was related to the growth of the beach (expressed as increase in m3 sand). The beach has grown and therefore BAM was paid.
So Deltares ‘cannot prove that Ecobeach doesn’t work’ and therefore the bonus was paid to BAM? This sounds like turning things upside down. Or can’t Deltares’ judgement be trusted anyway, because they see unwanted competition in the invention, as Jakobsen has suggested in an interview (2008)? That ‘s even more difficult to believe.
Just before Christmas, I have send a WOB-verzoek (Dutch version of the Freedom of Information Act) to Rijkswaterstaat to get more information on all of this. It can take a couple of weeks before I’ll receive the information which I hope will enable me to follow up on this story (see update).
To end this story for now: maybe it is just a coincidence, but I noticed that the Ecobeach website has been updated last week, news items have been added retroactively and also the brochure can now be found there.
I couldn’t have written this article without Robin de Nijs first tipping me off on the Ecobeach project and the issues in Denmark. His further remarks on the research and this article were also very valuable to me.
This article is a translation of the Dutch original on Kloptdatwel.nl published on December 20th 2013: Kustbescherming met Poul Jakobsen, innovatie of pseudowetenschap?
A comment on this blog reminded me that I had not yet mentioned anything about the result of my FOIA request. I wrote about it (in Dutch) in October 2014 on Kloptdatwel.nl: Ecobeach – hoe een mislukt experiment beloond werd met een staatsbonus. The documents I received do not really add any new insights about the invention, but they do show that Rijkswaterstaat and BAM really stretched up the agreement in order to pay out the full bonus. The only reason I can think of why Rijkswaterstaat would be so willing is that the department was looking really hard for a public-private partnership they could present as successful as this was one of the political goals of the Minister for Infrastructure and Water Management at that time.