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Laboratory Modelling of Scour on Seawalls

Conference Paper · November 2015


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4 authors:

Ravindra Jayaratne Edgar Mendoza

University of East London Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México


Rodolfo Silva Francisco Gutiérrez Garcia

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México


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Laboratory Modelling of Scour on Seawalls

Ravindra Jayaratne1, Edgar Mendoza2, Rodolfo Silva3, Francisco Gutiérrez4

School of Architecture, Computing and Engineering, University of East London, 4-6
University Way, London E16 2RD, United Kingdom; email:
Engineering Institute, UNAM, Circuito Escolar s/n, Edif. 5, Cub. 408, Ciudad
Universitaria, 04510, Coyoacán, México; email:


This paper presents the results of an experimental investigation performed to understand the
occurrence of scour in front of a vertical seawall. A single wave steepened by an artificial
slope that breaks on the seawall or as close as possible to it was generated. For this purpose,
a physical model was constructed and placed in a 2D wave flume where a focused wave
group was generated at the toe of the fore slope. Three distinctive sediment types for the
slope were tested (sand and two gravel sizes) and the experimental program included tests
with different slope angles, relative submergence, still water depths and energy spectra
(Jonswap and Top-Hat). Empirical models for the prediction of scour as a function of the
maximum wave height at toe of the slope were obtained for the sand and smallest gravel


Vertical seawalls are constructed in coasts where the protection of the infrastructure in the
hinterland and economic activities is more important than the use of the beach for
conservation or recreational purposes. For example, if the seawall collapses, the
consequences could be of great social and economic repercussion. It is well known fact that
among the main causes of seawall failure, local scour is a recurrent factor (Walton and
Sensabaugh, 1979; Fowler, 1992; Mase et al., 2015). Nevertheless, the mechanics of scour
in front of a seawall is still far for being fully understood and its values cannot actually be
precisely predicted. The latter is a quite challenging problem given that the published
methodologies for seawall design use the maximum local scour depth as a key parameter.

Therefore, the erosion in front of seawalls has been a major concern for many coastal
engineers. Ichikawa (1967) studied the collapse of the breakwater of Tagonoura Harbour in
Japan, where a scour to depth of up to 8 m was found. Herbich and Ko (1968) conducted
theoretical and experimental studies on the erosion in front of the structures concluding that
the scour depth is a function of the incident waves. Sato et al. (1968) studied the toe scour
near vertical breakwaters and found that the scour was closely related to the wave induced
currents. Fowler (1992) analyzed laboratory tests and proposed an empirical method to
determine the scour depth at the toe of vertical walls; he concluded that the ratio of the
water depth at the wall to the wavelength was the main factor governing the scour depth.
McDougal, W.G., Kraus, N. and Ajiwibowo, H. (1996) carried out a numerical study on
scour in front of a vertical seawall where they found that wave reflection has a minor effect
on the scouring process.

Most of the models available in the literature for the estimation of the local scour in
seawalls are related to the effect of a wave train, but as stated by Jayaratne et al. (2008)
disastrous consequences can arise from the effect of one or two violent waves. CIRIA
Manual (2013) discusses a theoretical model of prediction of scour at seawalls and levees
under irregular waves. Pagliara and Palermo (2013) reported that presence of air in the
aerated crossing jets affects the scour morphology. In this regard, the present experimental
study leads to understand the scour produced by a single wave breaking very close to or on
the seawall.


The experiments were conducted in a two-dimensional wave flume of 0.4 m wide, 0.6 m
deep and 22 m long, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) under
UEL (University of East London)-UNAM Research Partnership. The wave maker is of
piston type with a vertical paddle equipped with an active re-reflected wave absorber
system. The physical model consists of a slope, which ends in a small horizontal berm, and
then a vertical wall made of marine plywood represents the seawall. The schematic sketch
of experiment set-up is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Experimental set-up used for scour tests at UNAM.

Given the geometrical limitations of the wave flume, a focused wave group was the best
option for generating violent breaking on the seawall. The focal point was the toe of the
slope (approx. 17 m away from the wave paddle) and two origin spectra (Jonswap and Top-
Hat spectrum) were used to produce the focused groups. Seven wave gauges were placed
along the flume to record the wave propagation (see Figure 1), capture the focusing of the
waves and measure the maximum wave height. The experimental program is summarised
in Table 1.

Table 1. Test conditions.

Slopes Wave spectra D50 (mm) d (cm) hb (cm)
2:1, 2.5:1, 3:1 Jonswap, Top-Hat 0.28, 2.20, 3.60 3, 5, 7, 9 26, 28, 30, 32
Three different sediment sizes were used for the slope construction; sand (D50=0.28 mm
and ρ=2333 kg/m3); gravel type 1 (D50=2.20 mm and ρ=2904 kg/m3) and gravel type 2
(D50=3.60 mm and ρ=2805 kg/m3). The grain size distribution of each material is shown in
Figure 2.

Figure 2. Grain size distribution of the sediment used for the slope construction.

The experimental work included three slope gradients such as 2:1, 2.5:1 and 3:1, which
correspond to common artificial slopes and were previously used elsewhere as in
Sheng-Wen Twu, et al. (1999) and Ching-Piao Tsai, et al. (2009). Four heights of the berm
from the bottom of the flume were proposed to have similar number of relative
submergences and the still water level was maintained to 37 cm to avoid shedding.

Figure 3. Wave generation. Jonswap: Tp = 0.6 s, H0 max ≈ 18 cm.

Top-Hat: f1 = 0.9 s and f2 = 1.1 s, H0 max ≈ 30 cm.
Figure 3 shows the hydrodynamic conditions generated and recorded in the experiments. In
the left top and bottom panels the theoretical spectra can be seen, the middle panels show
the estimated paddle movement and in the right panels the water surface elevation recorded
at the toe of the slope was illustrated. The wave focusing is evident for both spectra but the
Top-Hat gives a cleaner and higher focused wave.

Figure 4 shows a group of images taken during the experiments. Figure 4 a) shows a
snapshot of the maximum wave height occurred at the toe of the slope and in panel b) the
erosion of the sand berm is depicted while panel c) shows the electronic Vernier used to
measure the scour depth in panel b). The precision of the Vernier is 0.1 mm.

Figure 4. a) Focused wave at the toe of the slope, b) Scour in the sand berm and
c) Measurement of the scour depth with an electronic Vernier.


Several analysis were performed from the conditions tested and the measured data. In this
paper, the effect of the slope angle combined with role of the submergence of the berm is
discussed with respect to the two origin spectra and three construction materials. Finally,
using non-dimensional analysis a simple mathematical model is developed for the scour
depth at the berm of the wall.

For the sand slope and the Jonswap spectrum it was found that the scour depth is inversely
proportional to the submergence and very little influence was found with the slope angle.
The scour depths found to be in the range of 0 to 1.25 cm. In turn, the focused wave group
generated with Top-Hat spectrum produced, in general, larger scour depths (0.5 to 2 cm),
the effect of the submergence is quite similar to that of the Jonswap spectrum. Regarding
the gradient of the slope, the scour depth was lower for the slope of 2.5:1. Figure 5 shows
the recorded scour depths for the sand slope.

The scour depths for the gravel type 1 are shown in Fig. 6. It can be seen that the scour
depth for Jonswap spectrum is proportional to the gradient of the slope (or inversely
proportional to the slope angle). The produced scour is greater when Top-Hat spectrum
than that of the Jonswap. In gravel type 1 tests with Top-Hat spectrum, the slope angle did
not have effect in the recorded scour depths. The range of scour depths in this model was
similar to those of the sand model.

Sand and gravel type 1 showed a similar response to the submergence; for Jonswap
spectrum the larger scour depths occurred for 3 cm submergence but for Top-Hat spectrum
it was 5 cm. This may be due to the larger wave height generated with the latter with lower
still water level, broke further away from the seawall.

Figure 5. Scour depths for the sand slope.

Figure 6. Scour depths for the gravel type 1 slope.

Gravel type 2 showed very little scour as seen in Fig. 7. The combination of the greater
grain size and presumably the increase of friction made the energy of the focused wave not
enough to remove as much material as in the previous models. No significant effect of the
slope angle or of the submergence can be detected for any of the spectra. In a similar way
to the other materials the Top-Hat spectrum gave larger scour depths but the ranges were
dramatically smaller such as 0 to 0.6 cm and 0.25 to 1 cm for Jonswap and Top-Hat,

Figure 7. Scour depths for the gravel type 2 slope.

In terms of prediction, scour depth as recorded in the present experiments, showed strong
dependency on the submergence of the berm and on the wave height at the toe of the slope.
Additionally, in energetic terms, the wave period needs to be involved in wave models
given the dependency of the energy density on it. According to that, two non-dimensional
parameters were proposed aiming to find a simple mathematical tool to estimate the scour
depth, d/H0max and S/L where d is the submergence of the berm, H0max is the wave height at
the toe of the slope, S is the scour depth and L is the local wave height. Finally, best fit
models were found for the scour in sand and gravel type 1 slopes generated by the Jonswap
spectrum however there was not a direct relationship for scour in gravel type 2 slope with
Top-Hat spectrum. Figure 8 shows the relationships between scour and hydraulic
parameters with their R2 values.


Seawalls are widely used coastal protection structures which, because of their
wave-structure interaction commonly prevent the occurrence of severe disasters. In this
regard, understanding of their failure modes is vital for the coastal resilience and resistance.
One of the failure modes is the erosion produced at the toe of the wall which has been
reported to be the most dominant failure mode.
Figure 8. Relationship between scour and hydraulic parameters. Left: Sand slope,
Right: Gravel type 1.

In this paper a set of experiments was conducted with the intention of better understanding
the mechanics of scour. It was found that the role of submergence of the berm is as
important as the role of the wave height. In turn the effect of the fore slope is not very clear
but seems not to be so relevant.

The grain size found to be determinant in the occurrence of scour but in the form of a
threshold, that is, materials with particle size lower than a given value would respond in the
same range of erosion but particles greater than that threshold will not allow any erosion to
take place.

A simple linear model was developed to estimate the scour depth as a function of d/H0
using Buckingham pi theorem. This model fits very well with present experiments however
it is proposed to further validate with new datasets.


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