Massive Rockfall Along Britain’s Jurassic Coast Could Be a Boon to Fossil Hunters

The gigantic rockfall along the Dorset Coast.
The gigantic rockfall along the Dorset Coast.
Image: Finnbarr Webster (Getty Images)

An estimated 4,000 tons of debris—including rocks the size of cars—has collapsed onto a beach along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. Because this part of Britain is packed with fossils, the rockfall is likely to attract amateur and professional collectors, but local officials are asking the public to steer clear of the beach.

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The cliff collapse, reported by Dorset Council on Tuesday, April 13, is thought to be the largest in the United Kingdom in 60 years. The “substantial” rockfall, the council said, happened between Seatown and Eype Beach in southern England.

Fresh and deep cracks have been reported along the fence line at the top. The public is being asked to “keep clear of tops and bases of cliffs when out and about,” Dorset Council warned in a tweet. The beach at the bottom of the cliff is now completely blocked by debris.

A second collapse was reported a short while later, this one just east of Seatown and measuring approximately 985 feet (300 meters) across. Both rockfalls are located near Thorncombe Beacon, a historic landmark roughly halfway between Seatown and Eype. There are no reports of injuries.

This famed stretch of English coastline is subject to erosion and frequent collapse, resulting in an “ever changing landscape,” according to Dorset Council. “Wind, waves and weather all act on the cliffs which can fall and slip without warning,” tweeted the regional authority, so people should “keep away from the tops or bases of the cliffs and stay off slip material on the beach.”

This shoreline is often referred to as the Jurassic Coast, and for good reason. The area is “well known for its beautifully preserved and scientifically important fossils,” as Sven Sachs, a paleontologist at Naturkunde-Museum Bielefeld in Germany, explained in an email.

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An aerial view showing the front of the cliff.
An aerial view showing the front of the cliff.
Image: Finnbarr Webster (Getty Images)

Important fossils pulled from the Jurassic Coast include a previously unknown species of ichthyosaur and the discovery of a squid-like creature still clinging to its prey. That stratigraphic layers from the Late Jurassic might now be exposed by the rockfall is wholly possible, said Sachs, and there’s a “chance that interesting fossils can be found.”

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In an email, Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, said he’s aware of the rockfall but is not yet sure which types of rocks were involved in the collapse. They could be “Jurassic-aged rocks or rocks of other ages or types,” he wrote, as there’s a “diversity of rock ages and types on the Jurassic Coast.”

Approximately 4,000 tons of debris fell during the cliff collapse.
Approximately 4,000 tons of debris fell during the cliff collapse.
Image: Finnbarr Webster (Getty Images)
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Brusatte suspects the collapse has exposed some fossils, but he issued a warning, saying people shouldn’t “go rushing to find them yet, the cliff still looks really unstable and dangerous.”

Indeed, the rockfall is still fresh, and more collapses are possible in the coming days and weeks. Should this patch of the Dorset shore eventually be opened up to paleontologists, however, it’ll be exciting to see what they might find. Some stupendously important fossils could now be lying there, just waiting to be discovered.

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George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

DISCUSSION

daveassist
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I was wondering, how far along is ground-penetrating radar or similar systems for use in civilian applications?

Fossil finds can be extremely chancy, so tools like this could really be a boon for the various fields?