BAS BORSJE RESEARCHES ‘LIVING DIKES’
Bas Borsje finds nature-inspired solutions to protect us against rising sea levels. ‘My research is about nature-based coastal protection. In other words, making sure that we keep our feet dry,’ says Bas Borsje, Associate Professor of Nature-based Flood Protection at the University of Twente. Borsje is an expert in the field of Building with Nature, more specifically on solutions that help protect us against rising sea levels. ‘This line of research is inspired by the changing climate. Until now, we have been protected by what we can call traditional engineering solutions, meaning dikes made of asphalt. They have worked well, but such structures are static and will not withstand the rising sea levels and increased storminess. The traditional dikes don’t change, if anything they degrade and need maintenance. That is why I want to find a solution inspired by nature.’
The main solution that Borsje is investigating is called ‘living dikes’, grass dikes with wetlands in front of them. ‘These wetlands have many advantages compared to traditional dikes. They buffer coast against storms by reducing wave‐loading and they keep up with the sea level rise. They are climate‐adaptive as they capture sediments and grow with rising sea level. This means they will be there for years to come, able to protect us,’ explains the scientist. ‘Moreover, grass dikes and wetlands offer opportunities for nature development and recreational use and store carbon very effectively, thereby providing environmental and societal benefits.’
If wetlands are such a great solution, you might ask: why not just put them everywhere? ‘For three reasons,’ answers Borsje. ‘We don’t yet know how they behave in extreme weather conditions, such as severe storms. Secondly, there isn’t always space to build them. The dike might be surrounded by harbors or other built-up areas. Lastly, people are not aware of this opportunity and the advantages, and they might not be willing to invest in wetlands. The tools and knowledge to implement this solution, in reality, are still missing.’ Borsje’s research focuses on all these three aspects. Together with a ‘storm chase team’, he will go into the field and investigate how wetlands behave throughout the year and how they respond to weather. He also aims to develop the know‐how and the design tools for realising living dikes.
Realization and application in real life are at the forefront of Borsje’s work. ‘My ultimate goal is to be able to see these constructed salt marshes on Google Earth. I want this solution to be so clearly visible that you can observe it from space. Ultimately, I really want to see living dikes in real life. There are a lot of opportunities to build them, but we don’t know exactly how yet. That is the goal of my research,’ says the scientist. ‘Given the rising sea level and the changing climate, we can’t keep relying only on traditional solutions. It should not be a fight against the sea, it should be about embracing nature – because that solution is a lot more sustainable.’
Focus on applied research is one of the main messages Borsje aims to pass on to his students. ‘I try to teach students to always look for a link with real-life applications,’ he says. ‘Everyone can read a book or solve an equation, but you need to know how you will use this in your future career. I want my students to be critical, don’t take anything for granted. You can always come up with your own solution. I don’t dictate what the right solution is, I want them to form a critical attitude.’ Thanks to his approach, Borsje was selected as the winner of the "Civil Engineering Teacher of the Year 2020" award.
Bas Borsje is track coordinator for all students Water Engineering and Management and the overall coordinator and teacher of the MSc course Short Waves and Coastal Dynamics and the BSc course Fluid Mechanics II.
Bas Borsje is an Associate Professor of Nature-based Flood Protection at the Marine and Fluvial Systems chair of the Faculty of Engineering Technology, University of Twente. He holds a master in Civil Engineering (cum laude) and a PhD in Ecological Engineering (cum laude), both from the University of Twente. He has secured a VENI and a VIDI grant in Nature-based flood protection and is PI of the NWA-ORC project "Living Dikes" from 2021 onwards. On top of his work at the UT, he is also a visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) and at Sun Yat-sen University (China). In 2019 he became chair of the Young Wadden Academy (YWA), a group of young scientists with a focus on the Wadden Sea region and on science and governance of this UNESCO world heritage site.
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