Dr Mitchell Harley

Mitchell is a leading researcher in the field of continental shelf dynamics, wave climates, coastal modelling and real-time early warning systems for coastal hazards.

Dr Mitch Harley

International Research

After completing a doctorate in environmental engineering at CVEN in 2009, Dr Mitchell Harley decided it was a good time to spread his wings. “I wanted to broaden my understanding of other coastal environments and experience how different cultures deal with managing the coast.”Accepting a post-doctoral position at University of Ferrara in Italy, he found himself “wading through eight-degree water, often when snowing, on beaches with large oil rigs on the horizon and artificial rock structures everywhere – not exactly la dolce vita!”

But what he learned was invaluable: a deepened understanding of coastal management and modification. Throughout history humans have been altering coastlines unaware of the long-term ramifications. Mitchell Harley is a leading light in a growing body of knowledge about marine environments. As the global community becomes more willing to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, innovative technologies and approaches can help prepare us for the huge challenge climate change presents.

Mitchell is a distinguished researcher in the field of continental shelf dynamics, wave climates, coastal modelling and real-time early warning systems for coastal hazards. He has developed specialist knowledge in embayed beach morphodynamics, in which the object of research becomes the relationship between ocean floor topography and the fluid dynamics of wind, wave and tide. He has developed new coastal monitoring techniques including remote sensing technologies, unmanned aerial vehicle operation and numerical model development. His growing expertise and reputation meant, in 2013, he was invited to lead an international short course on coastal modelling and coastal geohazards at the Korean Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) in Daejeon, South Korea. That experience saw him give lectures on coastal dynamics overlooking the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea: “possibly one of the most hazardous beaches on the planet”  Mitchell says.

ARC Projects

The Water Research Laboratory (WRL) is glad to have lured him back to Australia. Since 2015, he has been working at UNSW as part of a three-year Australian Research Council (ARC) research project on measuring and modelling coastal storm erosion and recovery, using process-based and behavioural numerical models. During this period he had one of his most rewarding experiences: capturing the measurements of extreme beach erosion across the south-eastern Australian coastline in June of 2016. “That period felt a bit like being in a Hollywood disaster film, where the scientists warn of doom and gloom but nobody listens until it actually happens. Our team at WRL had been planning for an extreme event like that for the best part of a decade. We were monitoring wave and weather forecasts on a daily basis, looking out for any prospective large storm event. When the forecasts came in on the Monday (the storm hit the following Sunday), we knew right away that this was the ‘big one’.”

WRL mobilised all their scientific instrumentation and, for the first time in Australia, captured very detailed measurements of the impacts of an extreme storm on a coastal environment that stretched over hundreds of kilometres of sandy beaches. “From a scientific perspective this was fantastic, but the event also highlighted a critical communication blockage between experts and emergency authorities.” Right at the coal face of coastal storm risk management huge issues were revealed.  Thankfully these issues are now being addressed in the form of a new ARC Linkage Project that will be commencing this year. In this project the team will be working in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology and state and local governments towards establishing an early warning system for coastal storm risk.


Currently, Mitchell is also excited about a community-based program that puts WRL, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and Northern Beaches Council into a partnership that encourages beach goers to provide data. “With smartphone technology progressing so rapidly in recent years, we are now at the point where everyone effectively has a coastal monitoring device in their pockets. CoastSnap[i] aims to harness that potential by establishing a network of smartphone monitoring stations up and down the coast.” People simply place their smartphone in one of the camera cradles WRL have designed, located at Manly (South Steyne) and North Narrabeen beaches. Anyone can take a photo and upload it to their social media page using a relevant hashtag. “WRL then collects all the images and, using sophisticated image processing algorithms, obtains extremely good measurements of shoreline change over time. The technology has proved to be very popular and we are now working with colleagues in the UK, Spain and Brazil to establish networks all over the world.”

The CoastSnap Facebook[ii] page provides photographers with evidence of their contributions. Having been operational for nine months, CoastSnap has provided unprecedented access to information about coastal changes over time. For instance, the North Narrabeen lagoon entrance has been closing over with sand intermittently, then opening up again. This phenomenon[iii] has never before been captured at such high resolution and will help experts discover the causes and the effects.

Dr Mitchell Harley grounded all his current research in a double degree: engineering and science. “I was one of the few people that actually really enjoyed first year mathematics and I wanted to do more maths-based subjects. The fact that, in the UNSW Science degree, the maths was directed towards oceanography and meteorology made it even more enticing. In the end it worked out to be a very good choice as I find myself constantly drawing upon both skillsets in my research.”

“Working at WRL for me is a constant exchange of ideas between a bunch of passionate people from a diversity of water disciplines. It is a unique environment: a mix of commercial consultants engaging with industry and academics in touch with the cutting-edge research. That constant interaction keeps my research focused on providing solutions for the most pressing problems facing today’s society.”