“The big block” – a 620-tonne monster. Photograph courtesy of Peter Cox

IR - The record-breaking power of storm waves at Aran

Research Lives: Prof Rónadh Cox, Edward Brust professor of geology and mineralogy, Williams College, Massachusetts and UCD School of Earth Sciences

You look at the rock-moving power of storm waves, can you explain?
“Storm waves move gigantic boulders on the Aran Islands – truly huge, up to hundreds of tonnes, and in some cases they are high up or a long way inland. Previously, people had argued that only tsunami could move such large boulders, but we showed that Irish storm waves were well up to the task.

How did you start the research on the Aran Islands?
I studied geology at University College Dublin, then I went to America to do a PhD. I planned to come home afterward, but at Stanford I met a lovely man who was also a geologist – Mark Brandriss – and we married.

We live and work in Massachusetts now. But one Christmas when I was home, The Irish Times had an article about interesting research on boulder deposits on the Aran Islands. I used it in a course and one of my students, Danielle Zentner, talked me into starting a project.

When I walked across Inis Mór for the first time, in 2008, and saw the incredible boulders and the extraordinary landscape, I was hooked. Since then, I have been bringing groups of students over every summer for field work.

How do you track the boulders?
Year after year we take photographs and drone images (with my brother Peter Cox, a landscape photographer), and we compare images from one year to the next, We can track individual boulders, and we know their exact positions – how high up and how far inland. We can also calculate their weights.

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