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A coast is a narrow strip of land where the sea meets the land.
Coasts are divided into zones depending on what the conditions are
like on different sections of a coast.
The zones of a coast.

Backshore - This is the area between the high water mark and
the landward limit of marine activity.

Foreshore - This is the area lying between the high water mark
and the low water mark and is often seen as the most
important area for marine activity.

Inshore - The area between the low water mark and the point
where the waves cease to have any influence on the land
around them.

Offshore - The area beyond the point where waves cease to

impact the seabed and in which activity is limited to the
deposition of sediments.

Factors Effecting Coasts


Rock type of the coast. If the coast is made from soft rock, it
will be eroded far more quickly than if it is made of hard rock.

Deltas form where rivers meet the sea, which will alter the
shape of coasts.

Composition of rock layers on coasts will affect their shapes.

Tectonics in the area will effect coasts. Earthquakes can move

rock and trigger tsunamis, which can destroy entire coastlines.

Mangroves and coral reefs can alter the shape of coasts as

they slow down incoming waves, decreasing the rate at which
a coast is eroded.


Ports, docks and transport can be constructed and/or used on

coasts, thus altering the shape of coasts. Boats can destroy
coral reefs and hence increase the erosion of the coastline.

Coasts can be used for recreation and tourism. The increased

foot traffic and demand for certain attractions on coastlines
can alter their shape substantially.

Humans can settle on coastlines. Often, settlements on

coastlines will thrive due to their proximity to the sea for trade
and tourism.

Global warming is altering the shape of coastlines due to the

rising sea levels resulting from it.


Certain types of weather can effect coasts. High winds and

heavy rain will erode coasts.

The Moon (and the Sun and Jupiter to some extent) effects the
tides substantially, which can alter the shape of coasts.

Temperatures alter the shape of coasts.


Biotic creatures such as Coral alter the shapes of coasts for

the aforementioned reasons relating to the rate of erosion.

Waves, tides & salt spray all play their part in altering the
shape of coasts.

Coastal System
Coasts are considered an example of an open system as they have
inputs and outputs.


Energy is inputted in the form of waves, wind currents and

tides. These will vary spatially and temporally (space and
time, no not that space and time).

Sediment from other eroded coastlines, rivers and sub-aerial

processes will be deposited along coasts.

Human activity will provide inputs for coastal systems.


Erosion, transportation and deposition all take place on coasts

along with longshore drift, biological activity and wind
transport (known as aeolian).


Landforms, sediment and the shape and position of the

coastline are all examples of outputs.

Waves of any formbe it ocean waves, sound waves or seismic

wavesare a way of transferring energy from point A to point B.
There are two types of waves in the universe, electromagnetic (e.g.,
light waves) and mechanical (e.g., sound waves). The waves were
interested in, ocean waves, are a type of mechanical wave. This
means they have to travel through something (a medium) which, in
the case of ocean waves, is water.
Ocean waves (normally) form when the wind blows across an open
body of water, giving them the alternate title of wind waves or wind
generated waves. Well just call them ocean waves here though.
They travel along the surface of the water, at the interface (a fancy
word for boundary) between the air and the water. Waves are
important for coastal systems because theyre a method of moving
energy, energy which ultimately erodes and shapes coastlines. As a
result, understanding how they develop and how to describe them is
super helpful.

Wave Generation
When the wind blows across the ocean, its speed varies with height
being slower near the surface of the ocean. This is because there is
friction acting between the water and the air. This friction produces
turbulence in the air near the surface of the water while also
transferring some of the airs kinetic energy into the water. The
transfer of energy into the water combined with the turbulence
produces perturbations in the surface of the water that eventually
become waves.
Initially these waves are small. How they grow is controlled by how
much energy the wind can transfer to them. The obvious control on
this is wind speed. Faster winds have more kinetic energy and can
therefore produce larger waves. Another control is the length of time
the wind blows for. The longer it blows for, the more energy can be
transferred into the water, producing stronger waves. A less obvious
control on the strength of generated waves is the fetch. This is the
length of water the wind has blown over. A longer fetch means the
waters had more opportunity to transfer kinetic energy and so we
get stronger waves.

The wind isnt the only way of generating ocean waves though.
Anything which disturbs the surface of the ocean has the potential
to generate waves. Cataclysmic events like earthquakes, submarine
volcanic eruptions or landslides generate immense waves known
as tsunamis1. These dont look like2 the normal ocean waves were
used to and have far more kinetic energy. Because of the infrequent
occurrence of these waves, were not going to worry about them in
this topic. Just be aware that they are still a type of ocean wave.

Describing Waves
As ocean waves are just another type of wave, they have a bunch of
properties that should be faimiliar to you if youve ever studied
basic Physics3.

A handy diagram pointing out the properties of a wave.

The crest and trough of a wave are the highest and lowest points of
a wave respectively. If you imagined the surface of the water was
flat and overlayed a wave on top of it, the amplitude of the wave
would be the height of the crest above the stationary water. Note
that a waves amplitude is not the same thing as its height.
A waves height is the vertical distance between a crest and a

The wavelength of a wave is the horizontal distance between two

crests or troughs. For wind generated ocean waves, it can vary from
a few tens of centimetres to hundreds of metres. The wavelength is
sometimes referred to using the lowercase Greek letter lambda ().
This isnt too common in Geography but its used all the time in
The time period of a wave (sometimes called the wave period) is the
time it takes for a wave to travel through one wavelength. Thats
another way of saying its the time between two crests or troughs
passing a stationary point. The time period is normally measured in
The time period is linked to another property of a wave,
its frequency. The frequency is the number of crests or troughs
passing a stationary point per second. Mathematically, its the
inverse of the time period or one divided by the time period. If the
time period were in seconds per wave (or just seconds), the
frequency would be in waves per second. For ocean waves, this is
normally a small number so the frequency is more commonly given
in waves per minute.
Finally, the velocity of a wave is the speed at which it moves in a
certain direction. For wind-generated waves, the velocity has to be
less than the velocity of the wind, above it and the wind cant
impart energy anymore.

Particle Motion in Waves

When we talk about the motion of waves, what were really talking
about is the motion of particles as waves move through them. After
all, thats what we can see. The motion of particles is related to the
ratio of the waves wavelength to the waters depth.
In water that is much deeper than the wavelength of the wave,
particles follow an almost closed circular path. The radius of the
path depends on the wavelength of the wave and the depth of the
particle, decreasing with increasing depth. At a depth of around one
wavelength, the radius is so small the particles effectively dont
move. In water that isnt much deeper than the wavelength of the

wave, the particles follow an almost closed elliptical path. This

increase in eccentricity happens because the sea bed starts to
interfere with the motion of the particles.
Now, notice that I said for both shallow and deep water waves, the
particles follow an almost closed path. Those of you that paid
attention during Physics will remember that particles in a wave
oscillate around a central position, but they always return to the
same position once the wave has passed. In other words, there is no
net movement of particles. This isnt the case for ocean waves due
to a phenomenon called Stokes Drift. This is a complicated piece of
fluid mechanics that you dont need to understand. You just need to
know that its responsible for water wave particles having non
closed paths that causes a net movement of particles in the
direction of the waves propagation.

Waves & Coastlines

So far weve only talked about waves in the context of a deep ocean
but the place where we really see waves in action is near the coast.
Here, the water gets shallower, the waves get bigger and some of
that energy the waves have been carrying finally makes it to the
On the run-up to a coastline, the depth of the water becomes
shallower and a wave is forced to slow down. As it slows, its
wavelength decreases and its height increases4. This entire process
is called shoaling. The waves height can only increase so far
however. Above a height of around one seventh the wavelength of
the wave5, the wave becomes unstable and it breaks.
Depending on the properties of the wave, when it breaks on a
coastline it can be classified as
either constructive or destructive (also referred to
as surging or surfing). They differ in the strength of
their swash (rush of water up a beach) and backwash (rush of water
down a beach).
Constructive waves have a long period, a long wavelength and a low
amplitude. When they break on a beach, they have a strong swash

and a weak backwash. This means they deposit more material on a

beach than they remove. Over time, they build up gentle beaches.
The repeated action of pushing material up a beach eventually leads
to the development of berms.

A sketch of a series of constructive waves with a long wavelength and low


Destructive waves have a short period, short wavelength and a high

amplitude. They tend to be steep and form during storms. When
they break on a beach, they have a weak swash but powerful
backwash. As a result, they remove material from a beach and
produce a steep beach with breakpoint bars. In particularly stormy
weather, destructive waves can be powerful enough to throw
material to the back of a beach producing a storm beacha ridge of
coarse material. A sketch of some destructive waves, showing their short
wavelength and relatively high amplitude.

1. Dont ever, ever, ever, call these tidal waves. Never. Im

serious. Dont you dare. Theyve got nothing to do with the
2. In the open ocean, they have wavelengths in the hundreds of
kilometers range while their amplitude is only a few tens of
centimeters. Theyre barely noticeable. Its when they get to
shallower water that they grow in size.
3. You have.
4. This is again because of some complicated fluid mechanics. In
shallow water, the group velocity of a wave is proportional to
the square root of the waters depth. As the depth decreases,
the group velocity decreases but the waves frequency
remains constant. To ensure a constant energy flux, the
waves wavelength must decrease which in turn means its
height must increase. You absolutely do not need to know this
but Im sure you found it interesting.
5. Ive seen some sources say breaking occurs at one eighth the
waves wavelength.

Beach Profiles

Shingle beaches typically have a steep gradient (over 10)

because the waves easily flow through the coarse, porous
surface of the beach, decreasing the effect of backwash
erosion and increasing the formation of sediment into a steep
sloping back.

Sandy beaches are typically flatter (>5) and wider as the

smaller particles are evenly distributed and water takes longer
to percolate down into the sand so more sand is removed with
the backwash.

Beach Profile Features

Ridges & Runnels
Parallel hills and valleys of sand found at the low water mark.
These are formed due to the interaction of tides, currents and
shallow beach topography and so are often formed as breakpoint

Storm Beaches
A ridge of boulders and shingle found at the back of the beach
which have been thrown up to the back of the beach by the largest
waves at high tides.

Semicircular depressions formed by waves breaking directly on the
beach with a strong swash and backwash.

Develop on sandy beaches as a result of wave and tidal movements.

Beach Plans & Longshore Drift

A beach plan is formed as a product of the angle at which waves
approach a beach.

Drift aligned beaches are produced where waves break at an

angle to the coast. The swash therefore occurs at an angle but

the backwash runs perpendicular to the beach. As a result,

material is transported along the beach via longshore drift.

Some beaches show oblique alignments to the dominant wave

fronts. This usually occurs where the beach gradient is steep
and the wavelength is short. This is because the waves break
at different points on the beach.

Swash aligned beaches (e.g. Hells Mouth) are produced where

the waves break in line (parallel) with the coast. Swash &
backwash movements move material up and down the beach
producing the aforementioned beach profile features. Swash
aligned beaches are smoothy curved, concave beaches. The
beach face is orientated parallel to the fronts of the dominant
waves. Beaches which face the waves are termed swash

Methods of Erosion

Hydraulic action: when a wave impacts a cliff face, air is forced into
cracks under high pressure, widening them. Over long periods of
time, the growing cracks destabilize the cliff and fragments of rocks
break off it.
Corrosion/abrasion: the repeated action of waves breaking on a cliff
is enough to remove material from it over time. If sand and shingle
are present in the water, it will act like sandpaper and erosion will
take place faster
Attrition: beach material is knocking together in water reducing their
size and increasing their roundness and smoothness.
Corrosion: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is dissolved into water
turning it into a weak carbonic acid. Several rocks such as limestone
are vulnerable to this acidic water and will dissolve into it. The rate
of dissolution is affected by the concentration of carbonates and
other minerals in the water, as it increases dissolution becomes

Factors Affecting the Rate of Erosion

The biggest factor affecting coastal erosion is the strength of the waves breaking
along the coastline. A waves strength is controlled by its fetch and the wind
speed. Longer fetches & stronger winds create bigger, more powerful waves that
have more erosive power. As waves approach a coastline they lose energy though

because friction with the seabed increases. This means that the bathymetry (the
underwater elevation) of the ocean or sea bed also impacts the strength of waves.
Certain landforms further reduce waves erosive power. Beaches increase the
distance a wave travels before it reaches the coastlines cliffs and so reduces its
energy. Headlands refract waves around them, reducing their erosive power at
one location while increasing it at another.
Weathering also plays a role in the rate of erosion by creating weaknesses in rocks
that are exploited by the processes of erosion. Freeze-thaw weathering, for
example, creates cracks in rocks, increasing the rocks susceptibility to hydraulic
As always, humans have an impact on coastal erosion. Human activities have a
variety of complex effects on coastal erosion but most commonly the activities
increase the strength of waves. One activity, dredging, is commonly carried out to
improve shipping capacities but it reduces the amount of energy dissipated from
incoming waves and so increases erosion2.

Lithology refers to the physical properties of a rock such as its resistance to
erosion. The lithology of a coastline affects how quickly its eroded. Hard rocks
(e.g., Gabbro) are resistant to weathering & erosion so a coastline made of granite
(e.g., Lands End) will change slowly. Soft rocks (e.g., Limestone) are more
susceptible to weathering & erosion so a coastline made of chalk (e.g., Dorset)
will change relatively quickly.
If you looked down on a coastline from above and saw the geology of the area,
youd be able to see that the rock type changes as you approach the coastline
and that the different rocks are arranged in bands. The angle these bands make
with the coastline makes it either a concordant or discordant coastline.
Concordant coasts have alternating layers of hard and soft rock that run parallel
to the coast. The hard rock acts as a protective barrier to the softer rock behind it
preventing erosion. If the hard rock is breached though, the softer rock is exposed
and a cove can form (e.g., Lulworth Cove).

A concordant coastline. The hard rock shields the soft rock from erosion.
On a discordant coastline, alternating layers of hard and soft rock are
perpendicular to the coast. Because the soft rock is exposed, it is eroded faster
than the hard rock. This differential erosion creates headlands and bays along
discordant coastlines.

A discordant coastline. The soft rock is less resistant than the hard rock so it is
eroded faster.

Cliff Profiles & Bedding Layers

Rocks tend to form in layers of different rock types known as beds. These beds are
subjected to tectonic forces that tilt and deform them so they dip at an angle. The
angle the beds dip at affects how they are eroded and the profile of the resulting
Horizontal beds produce steep cliffs with notches where differential erosion has
taken place. Near vertical beds (with a dip of ~90) also produce steep cliffs but
differential erosion is less prevalent3 in these structures. Beds that dip seaward
produce gentler cliffs but are less stable because loose material can slide down
the bedding planes in mass movements. Landward dipping beds produce stabler
& steeper cliffs.

An idealised horizontally bedded cliff. Its profile is steep but the softer (lighter in
colour) rock has undergone differential erosion producing several notches.

A cliff with seaward dipping bedding planes. Loose material can slide down the
bedding planes making the cliff unstable & dangerous.

A cliff with landward dipping bedding planes. Compared to cliffs with seaward
dipping bedding planes, it is relatively steep and stable.

1. It is arguable that corrosion is a form of weathering rather than erosion as

it only breaks down material. The counterargument is that the water the
material is dissolved into moves, removing the material. The Oxford
Dictionary of Geology & Earth Sciences defines carbonation (the method of
corrosion described) as a form of weathering but I disagree and think that,
in the case of coastal systems, it is a form of erosion. I believe the
definition in the Oxford Dictionary of Earth Sciences is referring to
carbonation from rain water.
2. Dredging can have devastating consequences for coastal towns because of
the increased erosion. Hallsands, in Devon, UK, was destroyed as a result
of a dredging operation carried out in the early 1900s. The bay in front of
the town was dredged resulting in the beach all but disappearing over a
year. With the beach gone, a storm during a high tide breached the coastal
defences and destroyed the village.
3. In this arrangement, differential erosion will take place where weaknesses
from weathering have formed.

Sub-aerial processes are land based processes which alter the shape
of a coastline. Theyre a combination of both weathering and mass

Freeze Thaw
Freeze thaw weathering involves water entering cracks in rocks and
freezing. When the water freezes it expands, fracturing the rock.

The repeated action of heating and cooling rocks causing them to
shed off layers.

Biological Weathering
Plant seeds get into cracks in rocks and begin growing. As they
grow, they exert pressure on the rocks, causing them to fracture.
Seaweed, under the sea, can attach itself to rocks so that, as the
sea moves the seaweed, chunks of rock are pulled away.

Chemical Weathering
Corrosion is technically a form of weathering and not erosion.
Processes such as hydrolysis and oxidation can weather away rocks.
Hydrolysis involves the splitting of minerals due to their reactivity
with water. Oxidation is, basically, rusting. Elements such as iron are
susceptible to oxidation and can be found within minerals on

Mass Movement
Mass movement can be defined as the large scale movement of
weathered material in response to gravity. Essentially, its when a
cliff or other structure that is not horizontally orientated has been
weathered to the point at which it starts to collapse. Theres five
types of mass movement: rockfall, soil creep, landslides, mudflow
and slumping.

Freeze thaw weathering on a cliff breaks the rocks up into smaller
pieces which can then free fall. This occurs commonly on cliffs with
lots of joints as the joints make it easier to break up the rock. If the
cliff is undercut by the sea, it can loose some of its stability,
increasing the likelihood that a rockfall will occur.

Soil Creep
Soil creep is an incredibly slow process. It occurs on very gentle
slopes and produces an undulated (wavy) surface. Damp soil moves
very slowly down hill due to the increase in its mass (since its wet).

After being soaked by water, cliffs made from soft rock will begin to
slip due to the rock being lubricated. Landslides are very similar to

(Rotational) Slumping
Slumping happens for similar reasons to landslides. Heavy rainfall
makes the rock heavier due to it absorbing the water and the water
also acts as a lubricant. The difference with slumping is that it
happens on a concave surface, which causes the cliff to form a
crescent shape.

Mudflow is a very dangerous form of mass movement, which occurs
on steep slopes with saturated soil and little vegetation. The lack of
vegetation means that there is nothing to bind the soil together,
promoting mass wasting. The saturated soil becomes heavier and is
lubricated, leading to the rapid movement of a lot of mud downhill.

Headlands & Bays (e.g. Swanage Bay)

Headlands and bays, such as Swanage Bay, form on discordant
coastlines, where hard and soft rock run in layers at 90 to the
water. Alternating layers of hard and soft rock allow the sea to erode
the soft rock faster, forming a bay but leaving hard rock sticking out,
known as a headland. The altering rate of erosion of hard and soft
rock is known as differential erosion. As the bay develops, wave
refraction around the headlands begins to occur, increasing erosion
of the headlands but reducing the erosion and development of the
bay due to a loss of wave energy. Headlands and bays can form on
concordant coastlines too, as has happened with Lulworth Cove, but
this requires the rock to have already been weakened, possibly
during an ice age. Irrespective of whether the coastline is
concordant or discordant, as wave refraction takes place around the
headlands and erosion of the bay is reduced, sub-aerial weathering
such as corrosion and corrasion begins to weather the bay,
furthering its development.

Wave Cut Notches & Platforms

A wave cut notch is simply a small indent at the base of a cliff
formed when a cliff is undercut by the sea. When a wave breaks on
a cliff, all of the waves energy is concentrated on one specific point
and this section of the cliff experiences more rapid erosion via

corrasion. This eventually leads to the formation of a wave cut

notch, when the cliff has been undercut. As the cliff has been
undercut, the section of the cliff above the notch (the overhanging
rock) no longer has any support and will, eventually, collapse. The
repeated process of the collapse of the cliff and then the
undercutting of the cliff is often referred to as the retreat of the
cliff. As the cliff retreats, a gentle platform (with a gradient less than
5), referred to as a wave cut platform, is left behind. This platform
is heavily scarred by erosion from the transportation of rock across
it. As the platform grows, the waves have to travel further to reach
the cliff and theyll lose more and more of their energy. Once the
platform reaches a certain size, the waves will have too little energy
by the time they reach the cliff to undercut it and so there is a
physical limit on the size a wave cut platform can be.

A wave cut notch on Hilbre Island.

Formation of Caves, Stacks, Stumps, Arches,

Blowholes & Geos
Stacks, caves and arches are all iconic features of coastlines. They
are also all linked together, along with stumps and arches as they
are part of a series of landforms that form as a coast is eroded.
Areas on a stretch of coast that have small cracks and joints on
them are particularly susceptible to attack from waves, along with
bedding planes that lie inline with the direction of the waves. These
areas will be eroded very quickly and can be eroded in one of two
ways. The first way is simply eroding the crack and causing it to
collapse, forming a geo, a steep sided inlet into the side of the
coast. Alternatively, the area below the crack or joint is undercut
and a small cave will form. If the cave forms on a headland, then on
the opposite side of the headland, a second cave can also begin to
develop simultaneously. The water erodes the cave via corrosion
and hydraulic action, flooding the cave and swilling around it,
widening the cave and creating a unique pattern on the surface of
the cave. As the two caves are eroded and cut into the headland,
they will eventually meet. The resulting, iconic, landform is then
referred to as an arch. The roof of the arch has no support however
and is highly susceptible to weathering via exfoliation, salt

crystallization and biological weathering. As the weathering

continues, the roof of the arch will collapse leaving a stack, a tall,
lone piece of land sticking out in the sea. This stack is exposed to
the full force of the water and is weathered and eroded heavily. The
base of the stack receives a lot of erosion from hydraulic action and
corrosion and, eventually, the stack will collapse into the sea leaving
behind a small piece of land called a stump.
A blowhole forms in a cave. As a cave moves inland, the roof above
it is weakened and as waves crash into the cave, they can be
reflected upwards, eroding the roof of the cave. At the same time,
weathering on the roof of the cave will help weaken it further and
eventually water will be able to break through it, leaving a blowhole.

Features of Deposition
In a coastal environment, deposition results in the accumulation of
sediment along or near a coastline. This happens when the forces
responsible for transporting sediment in a coastal environment
weaken and can no longer support the sediment. Depending on how
and where the sediment is deposited, a variety of landforms can be

A spit is a stretch of sand or shingle extending from the mainland
out to sea. They develop where there is a sudden change in the
shape of the coastline such as at a headland. Normally, longshore
drift transports beach sediment along a coastline. When the shape
of the coastline changes substantially however, longshore drift
continues to transport material in the same direction rather than
following the coastline. This transports the material out to sea. As
the strength of the drift weakens away from the coastline, the
sediment is deposited. Deposition can be brought about earlier near
estuaries. The flow of water into the sea at an estuary is stronger
than the drift, forcing the sediment to be deposited.

The deposition of sediment forms a spit but its shape changes as a

result of wave refraction. Refraction around the end of a spit curves
it into a hook forming arecurved spit. As the area behind a spit is
sheltered from waves and the wind, it provides the perfect

environment for salt marshes to develop.

The formation of a spit near a rivers mouth.
Spits are eroded by the sea and wind but a constant supply of
sediment from longshore drift ensures their continued existence.
Events such as storms change the shape of a spit drastically over
short periods of time though. During a storm event, erosion exceeds
deposition so a lot of material is removed from the spit, changing its
Using Google Earth or Google Maps, its possible to see the shape of
different spits from an aerial perspective. Spurn Head in Yorkshire is
a good example. Google Earth has the added ability to look at past
images of an area. Using this feature, you can see how many of
Britains spits have changed with time.


If the bay between two headlands is blocked off by a spit then that
spit is known as a bar. The body of water behind the bar is known as
a lagoon.
An example of a bar is Slapton Ley in Devon. Again, its possible
to see this landformusing Google Maps.

Sometimes a spit extends far enough out to sea to join a coastal
island to the mainland. When it does so, the spit is known as a
tombolo. An example of this is Chesil Beach which joins the Isle of
Portland to the south of mainland Britain.

Haloseres & Salt Marshes

Need an example of a salt marsh? Parkgates a good one. Its
located in the Wirral and has delicious ice creams.
A halosere is an ecological succession that develops in a highly
saline environment. Guess where you find lots of salt? Thats right,
the sea. Haloseres are nearly always found along coastlines with the
most common type of halosere being a salt marsh.
People tend to have a love-hate relationship with salt marshes.
Some peoplenamely scientists and bird watcherslove them
because they provide a habitat for many rare and endangered
animals. Other people hate them because theyre a nuisance to
shipping. Regardless of whether or not you like them, theyre
important coastal landforms that provide an effective and
sustainable method for defending a coastline from erosion.

Salt marshes only form in low energy environments where there is
shelter from the wind and waves. Depositional landforms such
as spits can help provide this shelter. Salt marshes require a large
input of sediment which can arrive from the sea and rivers. The
most likely place along a coastline where youll find this sort of
sediment input is near a tidal flat. The low gradient of a tidal flat
means that any rivers that flow into it will very quickly deposit any

sediment theyre transporting. At the same time, the periodic

flooding of the tidal flat by the tides will deposit even more
Over time, sediment accumulates and the elevation of the tidal flat
increases in a process known as coastal accretion. This reduces the
duration of tidal flooding allowing a small selection of plants to grow
on the now developing salt marsh. These plants are halophytic
they love saltand are capable of surviving underwater for several
hours a day. Theyre often called pioneer species because of their
hardy nature and, well, pioneering growth on salt marshes. These
plants, which include species of cordgrass (Spartina) and glasswort
(Salicornia)1, have several adaptations that not only help them
thrive in saline environments but also help aid coastal accretion.
Long blades of cordgrass trap sediment that is too fine to settle out
of water in a salt marsh, building up a muddy substrate. At the same
time, the roots of the cordgrass plant (that are long to tap into the
water table) help stabilise already deposited sediment, aiding
coastal accretion. Pioneer species such as Spartina alterniflora (a
species of cordgrass) are invasive plants that spread rapidly. Once
these plants are introduced to a salt marsh, coastal accretion takes
place quickly and the elevation of the salt marsh increases greatly.
This creates new environments that are submerged by the tide for
shorter periods of time, allowing even more species of plants and
animals to colonise the salt marsh.

The Attack of the Salt Marshes

Salt marshes are great. They produce some lovely scenery, create a
habitat suitable for many rare creatures and theyre a natural
coastal defence. Unfortunately, they do have some problems which
have earned them a bit of a bad name.
As weve discussed, salt marshes form in places sheltered from the
sea. This is the same place where people like to build ports for
boats. In case you cant see where this is going, salt marshes like to
develop where people like to sail. This is a problem because boats
dont play nicely with long plants that get stuck in propellers.

In the past, salt marshes have grown uncontrollably and caused

major economic changes to the areas in which theyve grown.
Parkgatea small village on the Wirral Peninsulawas a major
shipping port for the United Kingdom. As the River Dees Estuary
(onto which Parkgate sits) silted up however, shipping became less
feasible and the area instead became a somewhat popular seaside
resort thanks to the newly forming beaches. This didnt last though.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century grass began
to grow on the beaches and a salt marsh developed. The salt
marshs existence was made permanent when the invasive Spartina
anglicaan Anglo-American hybridrapidly grew across the salt
marsh and increased silting ten-fold.
Nowadays Parkgate is a small tourist area in the Wirral, known for its
ice cream. The salt marsh is still around and is protected by
the RSPB because of the large number of nesting birds living in it.
Unfortunately, some delinquents set fire to the marsh in April 2013,
killing many rare nesting birds.

The Revenge of the Humans

Since salt marshes are bad for business, people try to stop them
from developing. Its not uncommon for people to engage in
cleansing sessions where they try and remove plant species that are
growing on a salt marsh and aiding coastal accretion. This slows the
salt marshs growth enough for it to not be a problem but it doesnt
totally stop it.
Once a salt marsh has fully developed theyre pretty damn hard to
get rid of. Invasive species of plants like Spartina are difficult to
eradicate and populations can rebound from just a small number of
plants. As a result, once a salt marsh has developed, its better to
see what a salt marsh can do for you rather than trying to destroy it.
After all, you have some new land. Why not build on it? Many cities
across the globe have encroached onto salt marshes. Sure urban
development kills pretty much anything living on the salt marsh but
hey, free land!
Aside from humans building on salt marshes, our agricultural
activities also threaten them. If it is first drained, cattle can be

herded on a salt marsh. This impacts the salt marsh ecosystem as

cattle selectively eat certain plants, reducing biodiversity. In
addition, run off from fertiliser used on farmland can enter salt
marsh ecosystems. The fertiliser mixes with water in the salt marsh
leading to eutrophication taking place. This is where the fertiliser
acts as a fertiliser for phytoplankton in the water and causes
populations of phytoplankton to greatly increase. These
phytoplankton blooms block out sunlight at the surface of the water,
preventing aquatic plants from photosynthesising. In addition they
remove oxygen from the water creating an anoxicenvironment
unsuitable for many aquatic animals.

The Revenge of the Humans Against the Humans

Who Are Getting Revenge on the Salt Marshes
Rest assured, there are people out there who want to protect salt
marshes. Unfortunately there isnt a lot we can do besides
introducing land use laws around salt marshes. To reduce the risk of
eutrophication we can prevent the development of farmland near a
salt marsh. This could have a limited effect though as once
agricultural waste enters the water system, its probably going to
end up in a salt marsh.
Laws can be introduced to stop people from trying to destroy
developing salt marshes but many of the cleansing sessions
people engage in have the backing of local councils. Similarly, trying
to get people to stop building on marshes could be difficult as local
governments may actively encourage development to ease land
The best we can do is turn the salt marshes into SSSIs (Sites of
Special Scientific Interest). This would make it illegal for people to
build on or damage salt marshes. Several marshes around the UK
including Parkgatehave been designated SSSIs because of the
number of rare birds and plants that live on them.

Sand Dunes & Psammoseres

A psammosere is an ecological succession that develops in the
sands of a coastal environment. Nine times out of ten, they develop
in sand dune successions. As you move inland across a sand dune

succession, the environmental conditionsin particular the soils pH2

change. This change in conditions causes the species of animal
and plant life found in the succession to also change.

There are several conditions that need to be met for sand dunes to
develop. First, a large supply of sediment is needed. The best place
to get this is from a large tidal flat. An area with a large tidal range
(a big difference between the high and low tide) will result in a lot of
sand being exposed to the wind, ready to be transported. This
brings us to our next condition. A (relatively) strong and continuous
wind is needed to move sand grains and transport them inland via
saltation. The best place to find strong winds that dont change
direction is in areas that face the prevailing wind direction.
With these conditions met, its now only a matter of time until a
sand dune starts to form. Obstacles such as rocks or human rubbish
are deposited at the strandlineessentially the high water mark.
These objects block the wind causing sand grains that are being
transported to be deposited. Over time, the sand grains will build up
and encompass the object forming a very small embryo dune.
Eventually pioneer species of plants will start to grow on the embryo
dune. As they do so, they bind the sand together, increasing the
stability of the dune. The vegetation itself also traps sand causing
the embryo dune to grow even more. As the dune grows it becomes
a foredune and a new embryo dune begins to develop in front of it.
This is the beginning of a sand dune succession.

Parts of a Sand Dune Succession

A transect across an idealised sand dune succession. Note that it
is not to scale.

Embryo Dunes
As weve already discussed, embryo dunes are the first part of a
sand dune succession. They form in the shadow of obstacles at the
strandline. As sand is deposited, pioneer species such as prickly
saltwort (Kali Turgida) colonise the embryo dune and begin to bind
the sand together.
The conditions on embryo dunes are harsh so plants have to have
special adaptations to colonise them. The pH of the soil (which is
essentially sand at this point) is very high (~88.5). This is because
of the large number of marine shells deposited in embryo dunes.
The shells are made from the mineral calcite (and sometimes
aragonite3) which is also known as calcium carbonate. Calcium
Carbonate is an alkaline and so as it is broken down in the soil, it
increases its pH.

The high pH limits plant growth to only very hardy species. Growth
is further limited by the high salinity of the soil and the lack of fresh
water. At the strandline, plants wont be submerged by the sea but
they will be splashed by it and so they have to be halophytic (salt
tolerant). The lack of fresh water means they need to have long
roots to reach the water table. These long roots help stabilise the
embryo dune.

Foredunes/Yellow Dunes
The vegetation that grows in an embryo dune trap sand in their
stems and help stabilise the embryo dune. This causes the embryo
dune to grow until a new embryo dune starts to form in front of it. At
this point, our old embryo dune becomes aforedune. As the dune is
still composed mainly of sand, foredunes are also called yellow
dunes because of their yellow colour. To make things even more
confusing, because the sand is still relatively un-compacted these
dunes, along with embryo dunes, are also called mobile dunes.
Because of the pioneer species that lived on the embryo dune,
conditions have changed in the foredune and theyre now more
hospitable to life. The vegetation on the embryo dune has
decreased the soils pH. The soil is still alkaline (pH ~7.58) but it is
now tolerable to a wider range of plants. Marram grass often grows
in foredunes. Like prickly saltworth, marram grass is a halophyte
and has long roots to tap into the water table. These roots again
help bind the sand, increasing the foredunes stability. Marram grass
grows tall very quickly though. This means that the plant can trap a
lot of sand without burying itself in sand, allowing the foredune to
grow quite big.
Marram grass has an interesting adaptation for living on foredunes.
As it is quite long, to reduce damage from the wind it is made from
very thin blades. This makes it more aerodynamic but reduces how
much rainwater it can collect. To combat this, during light winds its
blades fold outwards to collect more water. Then, as the wind picks
up, the blades fold in to protect them from the wind.

Grey Dunes
As the plant life on a foredune dies, it forms a layer of humus (not
the same thing as hummus). This is an organic layer of soil that is
somewhat acidic and helps lower the pH of the soil to ~67. The
higher organic content of the foredune gives it a grey colour and it is
now known as a grey dune. As the soil is now more stable, it is also
known as a fixed dune.
The lowered pH allows some new species of plants to develop.
Vegetation such as marram grass will still prevail though as grey
dunes are still dry and exposed to the wind. The really interesting
vegetation grows in dune slacks.

Dune Slacks
Dune slacks are very large depressions in sand dune successions
that are often deep enough to expose the water table. There are two
ways they can form. If a foredune grows large enough it can form
a dune ridge that prevents any further deposition of sediment inland
by blocking the wind. The low point behind the ridge is the dune
slack. Since theres little erosion taking place behind the dune ridge,
the water table generally isnt exposed in the dune slack.
The more interesting dune slacks form as a result of blowouts.
Excessive trampling and grazing of plants on a dune will reduce the
stability of the dune since theres no roots to bind it together. This
makes it easier to erode the dune, producing a deep depression in
the succession that often reaches down to the water table.
As fresh water is exposed at the surface, new types of vegetation
can grow in the dune slack, in particular reeds and rushes. A dune
slack that forms behind a grey dune often contains a variety of
vegetation because the humus on the grey dune is blown into the
dune slack making it even more hospitable.

The climax (or plagioclimax) marks the end of the sand dune
succession. Here, soil pH is much more acidic (~4.55) thanks to a
thick layer of humus developing. This allows vegetation like shrubs
and trees to grow. Often forests develop at the climax of a sand
dune succession.

Note that if the end of a sand dune succession is bought about due
to human activity, the end is known as a plagioclimax.

Sand Dune Protection

Sand dune successions are fragile systems and are susceptible to
damage and interference from humans. We therefore take it upon
ourselves to protect sand dune systems and we do so using a
variety of methods. Many of the methods used are soft engineering
techniques so they are low cost, low technology and work with
nature rather than against it.
Sand dunes, more specifically the vegetation that covers sand
dunes, are often trampled by humans and grazing animals. This
creates the conditions needed for a blowout. In order to limit
trampling and prevent blowouts, sand dune management takes
place and restricted access is granted to areas of sand dune
successions. Footpaths are constructed to limit the trampling of
plants to certain areas and these footpaths are fenced off in order to
prevent people from wondering off onto sand dunes. Some types of
footpaths, known as boardwalks, are made of wooden slats which
allow plants to grow underneath the boardwalks and therefore
continue to bind the sand in that particular area.
Educating tourists is a particularly effective way of reducing damage
to sand dunes. Information boards will limit the number of tourists
who simply ignore the no access signs by actually providing them
with a reason to obey them.
In order to stabilise sand dunes, dead fern trees can be planted in
the sand to help trap the sand and build up new sand dunes. These
trees can also be used to stabilise existing sand dunes allowing
them to grow to great heights.

Dead pine trees planted at Formby Sand Dunes have increased the
sand dunes' stability causing them to grow very big

Sea Level Change

The sea level has and continues to fluctuate greatly throughout
time. On a day to day basis, the sea level changes according to
the tide but the sea level also changes on a much grander time
scale too. These changes in sea level are normally caused by ice
ages or other major global events.
The sea level changes for a variety of reasons. These reasons can
be put into two categories, eustatic and isostatic change, depending
on if they have a global effect on sea level or a local effect on the
sea level.

Eustatic Change
Eustatic change is when the sea level changes due to an alteration
in the volume of water in the oceans or, alternatively, a change in
the shape of an ocean basin and hence a change in the amount of
water the sea can hold. Eustatic change is always a global effect.
During and after an ice age, eustatic change takes place. At the
beginning of an ice age, the temperature falls and water is frozen
and stored in glaciers inland, suspending the hydrological cycle. This
results in water being taken out of the sea but not being put back in
leading to an overall fall in sea level. Conversely, as an ice age
ends, the temperature begins to rise and so the water stored in the
glaciers will reenter the hydrological cycle and the sea will be
replenished, increasing the sea levels.
Increases in temperature outside of an ice age will also effect the
sea level since an increasing temperature will cause the ice sheets
to melt, putting more water in the sea.
The shape of the ocean basins can change due to tectonic
movement. If the ocean basins become larger, the volume of the
oceans becomes larger but the overall sea level will fall since theres
the same amount of water in the ocean. Conversely, if the ocean
basins get smaller, the volume of the oceans decreases and the sea
level rises accordingly.

Isostatic Change
Isostatic sea level change is the result of an increase or decrease in
the height of the land. When the height of the land increases, the
sea level falls and when the height of the land decreases the sea
level rises. Isostatic change is a local sea level change whereas
eustatic change is a global sea level change.
During an ice age, isostatic change is caused by the build up of ice
on the land. As water is stored on the land in glaciers, the weight of
the land increases and the land sinks slightly, causing the sea level
to rise slightly. This is referred to as compression. When the ice
melts at the end of an ice age, the land begins to rise up again and
the sea level falls. This is referred to decompression or isostatic
rebound. Isostatic rebound takes place incredibly slowly and to this
day, isostatic rebounding is still taking place from the last ice age.
Isostatic sea level change can also be caused by tectonic uplift or
depression. As this only takes place along plate boundaries, this sort
of isostatic change only takes place in certain areas of the world.

Features of Sea Level Change

Sea level change can produce many features along coastlines.
Again, we can categorise these features based on how theyre

Emergent Landforms
Emergent landforms begin to appear towards the end of an ice age
and they occur when isostatic rebound takes place faster than a
eustatic rise in sea level. Put more simply, the lands height rises
faster than the seas. Emergent features are features of coastal
erosion that appear to have developed well above the current sea
level. Really, they developed when the sea was at that level and
then the sea level changed during and ice age and now theyre
above sea level.
One such emergent landform is a raised beach. Raised beaches are
wave-cut platforms & beaches that are above the current sea level.
You can normally find some old cliffs (relic cliffs) too behind these

raised beaches with wave-cut notches, arches, stacks etc. along

These emergent features no longer experience coastal erosion but
they are still weathered, often being weathered biologically,
chemically and via freeze-thaw weathering.

Submergent Landforms
Submergent landforms are the opposite of emergent landforms.
They form when the eustatic rise in sea level takes place faster than
the isostatic rebound after an ice age. Basically, the water starts to
flood the land and fills up landforms on the land.
One submergent feature is a Ria. This is a river valley thats been
flooded by the eustatic rise in sea level. Theyre almost exactly like
a typical river valley but they have even more water in them. The
cross section of a ria is really similar to the one youd find for a river
in the lower course. One thing to note, the floodplain of the river
also gets flooded, altering the cross profile of a ria ever so slightly so
that it includes the floodplain.
Another submergent feature is a Fjord. These are steeper and
deeper variants of riases that are relatively narrow for their size.
They have a u-shaped cross profile and are often found in
particularly icy sections of the world. Any guess what they could be?
Thats right, theyre flooded glacial valleys (Id only expect you to
know that if you did Ice on the land for GCSE geography). In
general, fjords are really deep however they have a shallow mouth
(known as a threshold) as this is where the glacier deposited its
load. Fjords are pretty stunning pieces of scenery, an example of
one is Sogne Fjord in Norway which is really big.
The final submergent feature is a dalmatian coastline. These form in
areas of the world where valleys (especially glacial valleys) lie
parallel to each other. When the valleys are flooded by the rise in
sea level, the tops of the valleys remain above the surface of the
sea and appear to be a series of islands that run parallel to the
coastline. The best example of a dalmatian coastline is the one from
which they get their name, the Dalmatian coast in Croatia.

The Future
As we are constantly hearing, sea levels are still rising. The reasons
are pretty widely debated. We know that one of the reasons is
because were still coming out of our last ice age (amazingly,
isostatic rebound is still taking place) and ice from the last ice age is
still melting. Most of us also think that its because the planets
getting hotter (probably because of us, but not for certain) which is
melting even more ice on top of the ice that was already defrosting
from the last ice age. Whatever the reason, the sea is rising and its
a bit of a problem.
In the UK, the east coast is at a particularly high risk of a) being
flooded and b) being destroyed. In fact, we know that sections of the
east coast have already been destroyed and were fairly sure its
because the sea is rising and the land is sinking. While the northern
parts of the UK are experiencing an isostatic rebound and are rising
above sea level, the east coast is sinking and the water along the
east coast is rising. This is resulting in more coastal flooding and
erosion along the east coast which is destroying it at a concerning
rate. Obviously theres a lot people living along the east coast but
whats more concerning is the fact that theres a lot of power plants
situated along the east coast and four of them are nuclear power
plants (theres also two deactivated nuclear plants). Even if we know
that those plants are going to be destroyed by coastal erosion,
theres not a lot we can do to prevent an accident since these things
stay dangerous for many thousands of years after theyre

Coastal Flooding
Causes of Coastal Flooding
Storm Surges
Storm surges are sudden rises in sea level caused by very strong
winds, normally those found in hurricanes and cyclones. The strong

winds essentially push the water on an oceans surface on top of

more water, increasing the sea level and flooding coastlines. The
conditions needed to create these strong winds are generally
associated with low pressures, further increasing the sea level. The
strong winds can create large and powerful waves that can overtop
coastal defences so even if the rise in sea level doesnt flood the
coastline, the resulting waves likely will.
Logically, storm surges are most dangerous during high tides, since
the sea level will already be elevated at this time.

Rising Sea Levels

Sea level rise is discussed in more detail here.
As sea levels rise due to climate change or isostatic rebound low
lying coastal areas are permanently flooded by the sea. The
likelihood and severity of storm surges also rises since weaker winds
will also be able to increase the sea level enough to flood coastal

Tsunamis are giant waves resulting from earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions, meteor impacts, any sort of major displacement of water
in the ocean. Tsunamis are incredibly dangerous since they travel
quickly and are difficult to detect. Out at sea, close to the source of
the tsunami, the amplitude of the wave is relatively low making it
difficult to detect but it travels very quickly (over 800kmh-1). As it
approaches the shore the wave slows down significantly but its
amplitude increases exponentially without the wave breaking. When
the wave hits the coast it does so with an immense amount of
energy and its amplitude continues to grow as it slows down even
more. Tsunamis have so much energy that they can travel several
miles inland.
Tsunamis flood vast expanses of land and cause immense amounts
of damage due to the energy they impact the coast with and the
fact that they collect debris as they inundate more areas.

Reclaimed Land

Many coastal settlements have developed onto what is known as

reclaimed land. This is land that has been gained from the sea due
to coastal management or, somewhat ironically, lowered sea levels.
This land, while highly valuable, is low lying and flat, so a small rise
in sea level from a mild storm surge is enough to flood it and cause
extensive damage.

March 2011 Thoku Earthquake &

Tsunami (Japan)
On March 11th 2011, a magnitude1 9.0 earthquake occurred with an
epicentre that was around 70km from the Thoku region2 of Japan.
The earthquake displaced water in the Pacific Ocean by nearly 6m
creating an incredibly powerful tsunami that devastated the eastern
coastline of Japan. The first wave of the tsunami took around an
hour to reach the coastline and flooded Sendai airport. From this
point, several waves impacted the coast with heights ranging from
3m to 20m in different areas around Japan. The height of the waves
was predicted to be between 3m to 6m. In the city of Sendai, the
tsunami flooded land 10km away from the coast.

Social Impacts

The tsunami killed thousands of people. The National Police

Agency has stated that the death toll from the earthquake was
15,870 deaths of which 14,308 people drowned. Many more
people are still missing. In the town of Minamisanriku, 10,000
people went missing.

The tsunami wiped entire towns off the map, destroying

communities and uprooting & separating families. Out of
100,000 children who were forced out of their homes, many of
them were separate from their parents.

Because of the large number of people killed, mass graves

had to be dug for the dead as morgues and crematoriums
were over capacity and damaged. With no where to preserve
bodies, they had to be buried before disease started to

Over 700 cultural relics were destroyed by the tsunami and

many museums and libraries were flooded.

A level 73 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power

plant resulting from the tsunami forced 1700 people to
evacuate their homes in the area surrounding the accident.
They will not be able to return to their homes for a long time
since they have been contaminated with radioactive

Economic Impacts

Through a combination of the tsunami and earthquake (with

the tsunami doing most of the damage) 45,000 buildings were
destroyed and 145,000 were damaged. The estimated cost of
the disaster is in the tens of billions of dollars.

Industry was heavily disrupted due to power cut outs caused

by the loss of a power plant, the severing of electrical pylons
and the loss of oil due to a fire at an oil refinery.

Some of the worst affected areas by the tsunami were ports

and fishing villages. 319 ports were damaged by the tsunami
and had to be closed some for up to a year. The tsunami
caused some 1.3 trillion in damage to the fishing industry in
the areas affected by the tsunami.

Most people who owned homes did not have earthquake or

tsunami insurance and so will have to pay for repairs or
reconstruction of their homes themselves or through
government assistance.

24,000Ha of farmland was destroyed by tsunami. The

presence of salt on this farmland will make it un-farmable for
many years now.

Environmental Impacts

The tsunami washed tonnes of debris out to sea including

wooden planks, metal, cars, boats and oil. Debris has been

found on coasts around the globe and pose risks to sea life
and animals that live along coasts.

The nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant

has released unknown but dangerous amounts of radioactive
material into the atmosphere and water nearby the power
plant. Food that was grown in Fukushima has now been
banned because it was found to contain high levels of

The meltdown will have environmental impacts globally since

the radioactive materials have entered the atmosphere.


In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, a tsunami

warning was broadcast that allowed people to get to higher
ground. The tsunamis were taller than predicted though and
many of the safe zones werent safe.

Urban search and rescue teams and the Japan Self Defence
Force carried out search and rescue operations in the areas
affected by the tsunami and earthquake.

The Japanese government requested assistance from South

Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the USA and the UK
and also made satellite data, showing the extensive damage
caused by the tsunami, available to all relief efforts.

The Japanese Red Cross received $1 billion in donations and

the American Red Cross received $120 million in donations
towards their efforts in Japan.

Nuclear engineers from around the globe assisted the

Japanese government in attempting to avert a nuclear
meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Temporary housing was set up for those who lost their homes.
By June 2011, 46,000 temporary homes had been set up and
20,000 people were staying in inns or hotels.

In the months following the disaster, the government set

about rebuilding the many sea walls that had been destroyed
by the tsunami and also increased the height of the sea walls
still standing4.

Efforts were made to understand why the earthquake and

resulting tsunami had been so powerful so that future
earthquakes of a similar scale could be prepared for.

Coastal Management
Its becoming increasingly important for councils and governments
to start managing coastlines in order to protect them from
increasing coastal erosionand flooding due to altering sea levels.
The reason for coastal management is obvious, to protect homes
and businesses from being damaged and even destroyed by coastal
erosion or flooding. Failure to do so can have severe economic and
social effects, especially along coastlines which are used for tourism
and industry (pretty much all of them).
Management of coastlines is also important to help protect natural
habitats, however governments generally dont engage in coastal
management where there isnt an economic risk as effective coastal
management is veryexpensive.
When engaging in coastal management, theres four key
approaches that can betaken:
1. Hold the line - Where existing coastal defences are maintained
but no new defences are set up.
2. Advance the line - New defences are built further out in the
sea in an attempt to reduce the stress on current defences
and possibly extend the coastline slightly.

3. Retreat the line (surrender) - Move people out of danger zones

and let mother nature unleash take control.
4. Do nothing - The easy option, deal with the effects of flooding
and erosion as they come or just ignore them. This is
generally what happens in areas where theres no people, and
so nothing of value (to the government) to protect.
Like most engineering schemes in geography, theres hard and soft
coastal engineering. As usual, hard engineering techniques are high
technology, high cost, human made solutions. They do little to work
with nature and sustainability is a key issue with them, despite their
initial signs of success. Soft engineering techniques are low tech,
low cost solutions that work with nature to reduce erosion. Theyre
no where near as effective as hard engineering techniques but
theyre far more sustainable.

Hard Engineering Techniques

Sea Walls
These are the most obvious defensive methods. Sea walls are
exactly that. Giant walls that span entire coastlines and attempt to
reduce erosion and prevent flooding in the process. Theyre big, ugly
and very expensive requiring constant maintenance so that they
dont fail. They also produce a strong backwash in waves which
undercuts the sea wall making their long term sustainability
Traditionally, sea walls are large flat walls however more modern
sea walls have a curved structure that reflects waves back into
incoming waves, breaking them up and further reducing erosion.

Groynes are relatively soft hard engineering techniques. Theyre low
lying wooden walls that extend out to sea. The idea of groynes is to

capture sand that moves down the beach via longshore drift and
help build up a larger section of beach in front of an area thats
experiencing coastal erosion. The new beach will increase the
distance that waves have to travel to reach the coast and, in the
process, theyll lose most of their energy, reducing their impact.
Groynes are pretty effective but they have one major drawback.
Groynes will remove a lot of the sand thats present down-drift of
the beach which will result in a thinner beach at this area. This, in
turn, means that sections of the coast will be more exposed to
erosion down drift of the groynes which can create new problems
relating to coastal management.

Gabions are quite simply bundles of rocks in a metal mesh. Theyre
placed at the base of a cliff in an attempt to reduce the impact of
waves on the cliff and prevent the cliff from being undercut. Theyre
not particularly effective and theyre quite unsightly but theyre sure
as hell cheap.

Revetments are concrete (or in some cases wooden) structures that
are built along the base of a cliff. Theyre slanted and act as a
barrier against waves not too dissimilar to a sea wall. The
revetments absorb the energy of the waves, preventing the cliffs
from being eroded. Revetments can be modified so that they have
rippled surfaces, which further help to dissipate the wave energy.
Revetments are normally successful at reducing coastal erosion but
they are expensive to build. Once built however, they dont require
as much maintenance as a sea wall.

Riprap are just rocks and stones that have been put against the
base of a cliff. Theyre similar to gabions in their purpose but they
arent bound together in a mesh. This makes them look slightly
more appealing as they blend into the environment better however
the rocks are susceptible to being moved by the sea.


Breakwaters are offshore concrete walls that break incoming waves

out at sea so that their erosive power is reduced to next to none
when they reach the coast. Breakwaters are effective but they can
be easily destroyed during a storm and they dont look particularly

Tidal barriers
Big, retractible walls built across estuaries that can be used as a
floodgate to prevent storm surges. Theyre hugely effective but
theyre also hugely expensive.

Soft Engineering Techniques

Beach Nourishment
This is where sand and shingle are added to a beach in order to
make it wider. This increases the distance a wave has to travel to
reach the cliffs and so the wave will lose more energy and have less
erosive power when it reaches the cliffs. The sand and shingle has
to be obtained from elsewhere and is normally obtained from

Land Management
Land management is often used to help protect and rebuild dunes.
Sand dunes act as a good barrier against coastal flooding and
erosion and they can be exploited as a natural defence against the
sea. In order to do so though, the dunes must be left relatively
undisturbed so boardwalks are constructed and sections of sand
dune systems are marked as out of bounds to the general public in
order to reduce the erosion of the dunes by humans. This land
management is discussed in more detail here.

Marshland Creation
Marshland can be used to break up the waves and reduce their
speed, reducing the waves erosive power. The marshlands also limit
the area which waves can reach preventing flooding. The
marshlands can be created by encouraging the growth of marshland
vegetation such as glassworts.

Beach Stabilisation

The goal of beach stabilisation is the same as beach nourishments

goal, to widen the beach and dissipate as much wave energy as
possible before it reaches the cliffs. Beach stabilisation involves
planting dead trees in the sand to stabilise it and lower the profile of
the beach while widening the beach too.

Case Study
The Wirral is located in the north west of England, to the south of
Liverpool. The Wirral is a peninsula meaning that three sides of the
Wirral are surrounded by water while the fourth side is attached to
the land. To the west of the Wirral is the Irish sea, to the north is the
River Mersey and to the south is the River Dee. The Wirral did, and
continues to in some areas, serve as an important port for the
United Kingdom and today, sections of the Wirrals coastline are
used as reasonably popular tourist destinations. On differing
sections of the Wirrals coastline, different types of coastal defences
have been employed in an attempt to reduce the impacts of coastal
erosion on the coast. A combination of both hard engineering and
soft engineering techniques have been employed.

Hard Engineering In New Brighton

New Brighton was a very important coastal tourist destination on
the Wirral however over the past 30 years the are has fallen into
decline. In more recent years, the area has been rejuvenated and
many new structures have been constructed along New Brighton
making protecting New Brighton from the sea incredibly important.
Land uses in New Brighton include economic and residential uses. In
recent years a new theatre has been constructed in New Brighton
known as the Floral Pavilion. This venue is of particular importance
to New Brighton as it is the primary source of visitors to the area
and has received much recognition including a visit from The Queen.
New Brighton is at particular risk of coastal flooding and erosion due
to its location. Located on the North West tip of Wirral, New Brighton
receives a pounding from the sea. Waves that impact New Brighton
are very energetic as theyve got a strong fetch from the
approximately 200km of water (the Irish Sea) that the New Brighton
coast faces. In addition, a low pressure system around New Brighton

means that storm surges are a common occurrence making the area
particularly susceptible to flooding. This is worsened by the fact that
most of New Brighton is only a few metres above sea level so only a
relatively small storm surge would be needed to flood a large
section of New Brighton.
In order to protect New Brighton, several sea defences have been
employed. In order to protect against both coastal erosion and
flooding, a large sea wall was constructed in the 1930s, known as
the Kings Parade Sea Wall. The wall is 4m tall and stretches along
2.3km of coastline. It was constructed using leftover material from
the construction of the Queensway tunnel. The wall is specially
designed in order to reduce the impact of waves as much as
possible and increase its lifespan at the same time. The top of the
wall is curved slightly in order to reflect back waves that impact it
and dissipate their energy. This helps reduce the rate at which the
sea wall is worn down since it is, slowly, being worn away. This is
one of the main issues with the wall, it requires a lot of attention
and is expensive.

The Kings Parade Sea Wall

The Kings Parade Sea Wall.
It has, however, been very effective at preventing both coastal
erosion and flooding. The wall has produced 100m of new land. In
reality, this is land that was submerged by the sea but is no longer
submerged since the sea cant access it any more. In addition to this
reclaimed land, there have been no cases of cliff collapse in many
years and there have been no major floods either, suggesting that
the wall is effective at preventing flooding.
In tandem with the sea wall, coastal zoning has taken place along
New Brighton in an attempt to reduce the risk of flooding should the
sea wall. The aforementioned 100m of reclaimed land is almost
completely undeveloped, with the exception of a few parks, since
its very low lying land and should the sea wall be breached it would
be flooded very rapidly. Pretty much all residential developments are

placed on top of the relic cliffs so that they have a little bit of
protection in the event of a flood.

Soft Engineering - Thursaston

Thursaston is located on the opposite side of the Wirral and is the
exact opposite to New Brighton in terms of development and
importance (to some people). Thursaston has very little in terms of
human developments. The area is in fact a SSSI (Site of Special
Scientific Interest) and is mostly just plants and wildlife with some
interesting sandstone landforms. Given that Thursaston lacks
human development, little has been done to prevent coastal erosion
here. What has been done, though, is all soft engineering.
The cliffs along Thursaston are very susceptible to erosion despite
the fact that the waves washing ashore are relatively weak
constructive waves. The reason for their susceptibility is their
composition. Theyre primarily weak sandstone and boulder clay
and the bedding layers of the cliffs dip towards the sea, so theyre
not particularly stable. The cliffs are also susceptible to sub-aerial
weathering and mass movements are frequently take place along
Given the low-value land that lies behind these cliffs, the local
council and environmental agency has done little in terms of trying
to protect these cliffs and what has been done wasnt particularly
Gabions were placed around the bases of the cliffs and can still be
found there today. The idea was to reduce undercutting of the cliffs
by the sea but they havent been all too successful since the cliffs
are still collapsing today. Now days, the main benefit of the gabions
is that they provide a (small) habitat for several species of plant and
insect, thats about it. The plants that have colonised the gabions
help to make the gabions appear to blend into the environment a bit
better too.
Another soft engineering technique that was employed was the
introduction of drainage pipes into the cliffs. Given that the cliffs are
made of boulder clay, if they became saturated with water theyd

become lubricated quickly and mass movements would begin to

take place. The drainage pipe was supposed to remove water from
the cliffs stopping them from becoming saturated but it has proved
to be totally ineffective. This is evident from the fact that a severed
pipe bound in concrete can be found just lying on the beach. The
cliff collapsed and the pipe fell out and was left on the beach. This is
a testimony to both the effectiveness of the pipe and how much the
council cares about the cliffs.

The Fail Pipe

The cliffs are likely to continue collapsing at Thursaston however
there is one thing that may save them. A salt marsh appears to be
developing before the cliffs and, with a little help from some
humans, could be enough to stop the cliffs from collapsing.
Unfortunately nobody is helping the marsh to develop and people
are going around and removing many of the plants that are growing
there as if a salt marsh was to develop, it would prove to be a
problem for the sailing groups located nearby.

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