Springs and neaps, ebbing and flowing

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For the student of English, two of these words will probably be familiar. Spring could mean that part of the year when nature wakes up again, or a coil of wire which stores kinetic energy. Flowing is a word describing smooth liquid movement, but can also be used to describe any process which moves, or should move, in this way (i.e. work flow, traffic flow etc).

However, put together, these four words are used to describe tides along the coast. Britain is very much a maritime island and tidal behaviour is something we need to think about when building a house or planning land use near the sea, or simply taking a walk under some cliffs.

Careful planning is needed when building close to water.

Careful planning is needed when building close to water. These swans had not read the flood-risk warnings.

Spring tides happen when the sun and moon line up together and have the greatest gravitational pull on the sea. The result is the highest and lowest water levels along coasts and in estuaries, where rivers meet the sea and where tides can travel far inland along the river. High tides can be made even higher by low air pressure (about 1 cm per millibar of pressure), and by strong winds from a certain direction. The result is often then floods. Many communities just tolerate flooding, as the cost of protecting against it can be higher than the benefit.

Flooded garden in Totnes - photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton

Flooded garden in Totnes – photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton

Neap tides happen when the sun and moon are at right angles to each other, viewed from the earth. These tides have the least difference between high and low water levels.

If the earth had no land masses to stop these tidal flows, tides would be a fairly simple one-metre high lump of water travelling around the planet, with a one-metre deep trough following, about six hours later. However, the English Channel is a fine example of how things change when land gets in the way. This lump of water travels west to east across the Atlantic (actually, of course, this is caused by the spinning of the planet in the opposite direction), and then Europe and Africa get in the way.

The result of this is a massive build up of water in the Bay of Biscay (west of France and north of Spain), and a funnelling of water up the English Channel, causing water level changes of over five metres along the coast, not to mention a flow of water travelling up to 5 knots (five nautical miles per hour) eastward up the Channel for just over six hours, and then back westward as the tide ebbs. As you see, tides flow and ebb, rising and falling and travelling up and down channels and estuaries.

As tides depend on the spinning of the earth plus the positions of the sun and moon, they are completely predictable and the working lives of many people are dictated by them. Sailors must wait for there to be sufficient water to enter or leave a harbour, and sailing boats need also to wait for the tidal current to be going their way. Obviously, if your sailing boat can only travel at 5 knots with the available wind and you are sailing against a five-knot current, you will have an unchanging view of the coast!

Flooding – where should money be spent?

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The story reads like a list of superlatives:
“The UK is enduring the worst series of winter storms in more than 20 years, weather experts have said, as Devon prepares for even more flooding.” Says the Torquay Herald Express.
“Early December tidal surge worst since 1953.”
“Wettest January in SW since 1910.”

Flooded garden in Totnes - photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton

Flooded garden in Totnes – photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton

Of course everyone is doing the best they can with limited funds. The Environment Agency oversees national issues and has a particular brief to saves lives first. Local councils are doing what they can to minimise risks in their areas. But it’s all a matter of priorities and different interest groups. Farmers would like their land protected from flooding, home-owners would like their properties safeguarded. Road and rail agencies would like their operations to run without breaks.

Flooded footpath in Totnes - phot copyright Malcolm Pemberton

Flooded footpath in Totnes – photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton

The reality is that there is not enough money to go round, and when heavy rain on high ground swells the mountain streams and fills the lower rivers, which then meet a tidal surge coming up the river from the sea, the result is inevitable. There are many ways to combat the problems, but each way causes its own knock-on effects. Rivers can be dredged to increase their capacity, dams can be built to control how much water empties downstream at one time, flood defences can be built where rivers meet the sea (like the Thames Barrier). Everything though, has an impact on the whole chain.

Projects can often get delayed as a rare bug is found living in an area due for dredging, another project would affect wading birds and another would affect fishing – and it’s all true. However, on a local level much can be done to protect individual properties, but more thought needs to be given to building them in the first place. It may indeed be idyllic to have your back lawn sloping gently down to the river, but maybe a stout wall at the water’s edge (with pumps installed behind it to deal with ground water seepage) may be more practical. Or, perhaps, if you build your home in a flood-risk area, it should be able to float 😉

A Nice Country Walk

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Enjoy a walk through the Devon countryside without leaving your chair, complete with narration. Here’s a video I put together from footage and stills from only compact cameras, using free editing software. The only expensive item was the microphone for the narration. Just sit back and relax – I already did the walking!

Animals and their young


A young reindeer in Finland. Photo copyright: Malcolm Pemberton

Most animals in English have special names for their young. Many will already be familiar to you, like kitten and puppy, but many are unknown even to most native speakers. Here is a list of better known animals, with plurals in brackets. Also included are the names given to males and females. I have tried to include the kinds of animals that you are likely to come across, and therefore want to talk about.

bear (bears) – cub (cubs) –

cat (cats) – kitten (kittens) – m. tom, f. molly (?)
chicken (chickens) – chick (chicks) – m. cock, f. hen
cow (cows) – calf (calves) – m. bull, f. cow

deer (deer) – fawn (fawns) – m. buck, f. doe
dog (dogs) – puppy (puppies) – m. dog, f. bitch
duck (ducks) – duckling (ducklings) – m. drake, f. duck

elephant (elephants) – calf (calves) – m. bull, f. cow

fish (fish*) – fry (fry) (*except when talking about different species of fish, then fishes
fox (foxes)   – cub (cubs) – m. dog fox, f. vixen
frog (frogs) – tadpole (tadpoles)

goat (goats) – kid (kids) – m. billy, f. nanny
goose (geese) – gosling (goslings)

horse (horses) – foal (foals) – m.stallion, f. mare

kangaroo – joey (joeys)

pig (pigs) – piglet (piglets) m. boar, f. sow

rabbit (rabbits) – kit (kits) or kitten (kittens) – m. buck, f. doe
reindeer (reindeer) – calf (calves) – m. buck, f. doe

sheep (sheep) – lamb (lambs) – m. ram, f. ewe

whale (whales) – calf (calves) – m. bull, f. cow
wolf (wolves) – cub (cubs)

Is your favourite animal missing? Leave a comment and I’ll find out for you.

Multiple Meteorites Strike Russia


It appears that a large meteor, estimated to have weighed in at a hefty 50 tonnes streaked across the sky in Russia earlier today (15th February), glowing brighter and brighter as it heated up at high altitude. It then exploded, breaking up into smaller pieces which impacted over a large area of the Ural Mountains, injuring nearly 1,000 people.

According to Russia Today: “Army units found three meteorite debris impact sites, two of which are in an area near Chebarkul Lake, west of Chelyabinsk. The third site was found some 80 kilometers further to the northwest, near the town of Zlatoust. One of the fragments that struck near Chebarkul left a crater six meters in diameter.”

At least two towns in the area have declared a state of emergency, and President Putin has promised immediate aid.

Winter Words

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Snowy Misty Shore

Photo: copyright Malcolm Pemberton 2012

Winter came late this year in Finland, and when it came the snow fell on cold dry ground, so it settled and stayed and didn’t turn into slush. The surface was crisp and easy to walk on and the side-roads were quiet as the snow silenced the sound of the metal-studded car tyres. Then came a warmer period, the snow partially melted and then footprints froze and made the paths lumpy and hard to walk on. Then, even worse, on New Year’s Day, it rained on the frozen pavements, making walking almost impossible. Also, as it was a Bank Holiday, sanding and gritting of paths was largely left undone. Now the weather has improved; temperatures have gone down, fresh snow has fallen and been neatly ploughed away, leaving clean, flat snow to walk on. And just to make it perfect, the sun shone this afternoon, lighting up the snowy landscape, silhouetting the bare tree branches and illuminating the low mist which enhanced the frozen sea.

Word(s) of the Day 10 – Ebb and Flow

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Low Tide at Shoreham Locks

Ebb and Flow are closely related to yesterday’s words, wax and wane. The moon, in conjunction with the sun, creates the tides in our oceans. When the tide is flowing, the waters are rising, and when it is ebbing the waters are falling. Between ebb and flow, we say that the tide is on the turn. The monthly greatest tidal ranges are called spring tides, and the smallest ranges are called neap tides.

Ebb can also be used metaphorically, often as regards failing health or energy. Flow is not used as a metaphor so much, as it has a second, concrete meaning referring to electrical or fluid currents on the move. 

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