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Key Question 1: What is a coastal system and what are the

dynamics of coastal environments?

The Coastal System

The coast is the interface between land and sea. One way to study the coast is to view
it as a system. The coast is an open system. Energy inputs from waves drive the system.
They interact with the geology, sediments, plants and human activities along the
coastline. From time to time the energy input is boosted by storm surges and tidal
waves. A small proportion of the sediment is provided from within the system by wave
erosion of cliffs. Most is an input into the system from outside, the chief source being
rivers which are transported of boulders, sand and silt from land to sea. Weathering
also contributes; cliff faces above the high water mark are affected and any loose
materials broken off either fall or are carried within reach of the waves by different
types of mass movement. The evidence for this interaction are the processes of
erosion, transport and deposition. These processes give rise to the systems main
output: coastal landforms such as cliffs, beaches and salt marshes.
What is a system?
It is where a set of components or variables operate together.
They interact with one another. These are the processes.
Patterns and landforms results from the interactions And can be observed and classified.
These are the outputs.


Coastal system

Longshore drift
coastline at an angle due to
prevailing wind direction, when they
break their swash pushes beach
material up the beach at the same
angle. The backwash then drags the
perpendicular (at a 90 angle) to
the shore, following the line of the

Coastal landforms of erosion
and deposition
Accumulations above the
tidal limit

steepest gradient. This produces a zig-zag

movement of sediment along the beach
known as longshore drift. The action of
waves constantly moves and sorts different
sized material beach material..The action of
longshore drift sorts beach material, due to
the amount of energy required to move
sediments. Larger particles will need more
energy and therefore move at a slower pace.
Largest beach sediment is found updrift,
and the smallest material, which is more
easily moved, downdrift.

Coastal Sediment Cells

Longshore drift is responsible for most of
the interaction within the system through
transfers of sediment. Loose materials are





transfers of sediment. Loose materials are relocated from sections of coastline

dominated by erosion to those where deposition occurs to form constructive landforms
such as beaches, spits and bars. Winds can carry sand inland as an output from the
coastal system. Deposited coastal sediments that remain in position for a considerable
length of time are colonised by seral communities as part of a plant succession.

High and low energy coasts in the UK.

High energy coasts are ones in which wave power is strong for a significant proportion
of the year. The distribution of these coasts is largely controlled by the climate and
direction they face. Strong winds capable of generating the largest waves are more
frequent in areas of the world with a Cool Temperate Western Maritime climate
(CTWM). High average wind speeds are associated with the frontal depressions which
form over the oceans at the junction between warm tropical and cold polar air masses.
They often deepen as they move eastwards driven by prevailing circulation from west
to east. Big pressure differences develop between the centres of the low pressure
systems and any intervening or blocking ridges of high pressure. Exposed coastlines
often experience gales, storm force winds regularly and hurricane force winds from
time to time. The storm wave environments found in areas with CTWM climates are
shown below. They occupy similar positions on the western side of the continents
between 45 and 65 degrees north and south of the equator. Wave height and energy
are greater in the southern hemisphere as westerly winds, depressions and ocean
currents (the Antarctic drift) have largely uninterrupted passages around the globe as
so little land extends south of 45 degrees, Waves hitting Chile often have the worlds


Within the UK, the west coast is a higher energy coast than the east coast. Westerly is
the direction of both prevailing and dominant wind direction; it is also the direction of

longest fetch. Maximum wave heights decrease from west to east and from north to
south across the British Isles away from exposure to the open ocean and onshore
westerly winds. Fetch is the limiting factor for the height of waves generated by
easterly winds in the North Sea. No matter how long an easterly gale blows, the waves
breaking against the eats coast can never reach the height of those from westerly
gales along the west coast. However, with waves of fifteen and more meters in height
occasionally recorded along the coast of Holderness, waves still have the power to
cause considerable erosion. The shores of Europes almost enclosed seas, such as the

and Baltic,



energy coasts in relation to those

bordering the Atlantic and North Sea.
On a smaller scale some estuaries,
inlets and bays provide more sheltered
environments in which the average wave
energy is lower than on the headlands
and the more exposed coastal zones
are on both sides of them. A change in





average energy levels. Along coastlines

that are irregular, waves approaching
the headland feel the effects of
frictional drag at their base before
those which approach the bay. Those in the bay continue to move relatively freely
shorewards for longer. Waves around the headland turn inwards and concentrate their
attack on them. This bending of the waves around a headland so that they approach
almost parallel to the coast is called wave refraction. On the other hand, waves in the
bays spread outwards and dissipate their energy. Differences in wave energy levels are
thereby created at a local scale.

Why do extreme events such as storm surges, only occur when a combination of

factors favourable to their formation are present?


Explain why ;

i) the British Isles is an area of the world associated with high energy coasts
ii) coasts with the highest energy are located on the western sides of the British Isles.

Dynamic equilibrium in the coastal system

Why do some coastlines erode away? Why do some grow?
All beaches exist in a dynamic equilibrium involving four factors:
1. The supply of sand
2. The energy of the waves
3. Changes in sea-level
4. The location of the shoreline
It is the balance of these four factors and how they interact with each other that
determines whether a beach erodes or grows.
The concept of dynamic equilibrium is central to our understanding of natural systems.
A system is in dynamic equilibrium when its inputs and outputs of energy and matter
balance. In these circumstances, a system remains in steady state for long periods of
time. Of course, short-term changes will still occur. Systems adjust to these changes
by a process of negative feedback. Short-term event such as storms, greatly increase
energy inputs to the coastal system. This starts the movement of sand and sediment
transport comes to an end. At this stage the beach is at equilibrium as long as wave
conditions stay the same the basic beach form
remains unaltered.
Landforms such as beaches can adjust to changing
energy inputs in just a few hours. In contrast, hard
rock landforms, such as cliffs, may take thousands
of years to achieve equilibrium. Todays sea-level,
and therefore the position of the coastline is only
6,000 years old. This means that large parts of the
coastline have not had sufficient time to achieve
equilibrium. We notice this by events such as rock
falls and landslides which can dramatically alter the coastline. Beaches can exist only
where a delicate dynamic equilibrium exists between the amount of sand supplied to the
beach and the inevitable losses caused by wave erosion. Various activities of man have
upset this equilibrium, decidedly increasing the rate of erosion of the shorelines.
Consider coastlines that have an abundant supply of sediment. The most familiar
characteristic of sediment-rich coasts is a beach. Tides and waves maintain a dynamic
equilibrium on beaches. Storms can temporarily shift the equilibrium in favor of the
ocean, stripping away large volumes of sand, but a return to low-wave-energy conditions

will return sand to the beach. As mentioned earlier, sand effectively armors the shore
against wave attack and erosion.
It is only because most people see coasts as broadly stable over the human life span
that they do not recognise that coastal change is constant and that; over the longterm, commonly inevitable. Rates of change differ substantially over space and time.
Although rates are generally slow on a human timescale and are governed by many
cumulative events, occasionally earthquakes, other geological forces or storms can
dramatically change coastlines within a few hours or minutes. Some factors, such as
periods of increased rainfall, storminess, or sea-level rise may increase rates of
Normally a typical beach will develop and dissipate on a steady cycle lasting several
years as littoral transport drives waves of sand southwards, this allows intermittent
but steady erosion of the foreshore. Storm conditions can however cause rapid changes
in beach profile by drawing sand offshore, possibly stripping a beach of all its sand in a
single tide. During this time continued rough seas can cause rapid erosion of the newly
exposed clay. Recovery from such an event can then take several months as calmer seas
return sand to the upper beach. As can be seen opposite these changes in beach profile
can be seen as a seasonal beach response, this accounts for the increased erosion rates
recorded over the winter months.
The concept of equilibrium
Coasts are dynamic and they change frequently. These changes are principally caused
by changes in energy conditions such as wave energy eg. Which may increase during
storms. The morphology of the coast responds to changes in energy because it aims to
exist in a state of equilibrium with the reigning processes. However, there are three
types of equilibrium.
1.) Steady state equilibrium.
This refers to a situation where variations in energy and the morphological response
do not deviate too far from the long-term average. Eg. Along a coast that
experiences relatively consistent wave energy conditions, the gradient of a beach
may be steeper at certain times of the year and shallower at others but the
average annual gradient is similar from year to year.
2. Meta-stable equilibrium
This exists where an environment switches from two or more states of equilibrium
the switch stimulates by some sort of trigger. An example of this includes the
action of high energy events such as storms/tsunamis. Which can very rapidly
switch a coastal system from one state of equilibrium to another by removing or
supplying large volumes of beach sediment for example. Also, human activity often
has this effect on coastal environments.

3. Dynamic equilibrium
Like meta stable equilibrium, this too involves a change in equilibrium conditions but
in a much more gradual manner. A good example is the response of coasts to the
gradual rise in sea levels that were experienced through the twentieth century as a
result of climate change.

Equilibrium beach

Energy input (swash)

equals energy output
(backwash): no net
sediment transport

reduction in wave

As beach profile
steepens, backwash
strength increases

Low energy surging

breakers give a net
onshore movement
of sediment
Beach profile


The Sand Supply

The Waves

Sand is food for beaches and

gives shorelines protection from
the waves. Being starved of
sand can cause higher rates of

The erosive action of a wave is

greatest when the wave is high.
The angle at which they strike a
beach and how much sand they
are carrying can also influence
the rate of erosion.

The Dynamic
Equilibrium is
affected by
The Sea Level

The location of the shoreline

In New Zealand the sea level

is rising at approximately 15
cm/100yrs. Climate change
may cause this to rise further.

Shorelines move back and forth

between storms and their location
can either increase or decrease
erosion rates
Right Place Resources

Wave types
Waves are undulations of the
water surface caused by winds





consist of orbital movements of

water molecules which diminish
with depth. In the open ocean wind
rippling water can lead to growth




circular motion of waves at the

surface is copied below in a series
of circles which become smaller
with increasing depth. All of this
changes as the waves are driven by the winds and currents into shallow coastal
waters. Shallow water interferes with the circular movements below the
surface, which are slowed down by the friction of the sea bed. The result is
that the length of the wave shortens and the front of the wave steepens. The
speed of flow of water at the top of the wave begins to exceed that of the rest
of the wave below so it topples over and the wave breaks. The jet of water from
the breaking crest of the wave moves forward with twice the speed of the wave
as a whole and creates swash.


Wave Characteristics


(L)is the average



wave crests.
Wave height (H) is the vertical
distance between a wave trough
and a wave crest.
Wave steepness is the ratio of







because they are high and have

short wavelengths.
The energy in a wave is equal to
the square of its height. Thus a
wave that is two metres high
contains four times as much
energy as a one-metre high wave.

Fetch, wind direction and wind strength are the main factors determining the
height and energy of breaking waves. Fetch is the distance of uninterrupted
water surface over which the wind has blown to form the waves. The loner the
length of open water over which the winds travel, the longer the fetch and the
greater the amount of energy released when waves break in the coastal zone.

Classifying waves
A common classification for waves is into destructive (plunging breakers) and
constructive (spilling breakers), although not all waves are as easy to distinguish
as this simple classification suggests.

Destructive waves:

Constructive waves:

operate in storm conditions

are created from big, strong
waves when the wind is strong
and has been blowing for a long
occur when wave energy is high
and the wave has travelled for a
long time
tend to remove material from
the coast and associated with
backwash is stronger than the
Destructive waves create a
steep narrow beach

operate in calm weather

are less powerful waves
break on the shore and tend to
deposit material, building up
are responsible for transporting
material .
swash is stronger than the
Constructive waves create a
wide, gently sloping beach.

When a wave breaks, water is washed up the beach: this is called the swash.
Then the water runs back down the beach: this is called the backwash. With a
constructive wave, the swash is stronger than the backwash. With a destructive
wave, the backwash is stronger than the swash.

A destructive wave

All the energy accumulated by movement is released when the wave breaks.
Since destructive waves are high and short, there is a sudden impact of water
upon whatever the breaking wave hits. These waves are sufficiently high for the
water motion to be almost circular so that the great force of water is directed
downwards when they break. This gives a strong backwash, which increases the
likelihood of loose material being clawed back down the beach into the sea.

A constructive wave
In contrast, the more elliptical shape of water movement in a constructive wave
means that the forward movement of the breaking wave is more pronounced
than its downward force. By breaking forwards a strong swash is pushed up the
beach, while the energy of the backwash is reduced as water seeps into the
sand and shingle. Not all the loads is carried back to the sea. This promotes

Simple summary: Large waves erodeand very small waves deposit.

Key question 2: What are the processes of coastal erosion and

what are the resultant landforms?

Weathering and erosion in the coastal zone

Wave action on coastlines causes three types of erosional process: abrasion
(also know as corrosion), hydraulic action and corrosion. These processes are
most effective when high energy waves associated with storm conditions, strike
coasts made of less resistant rocks such as clay and shale. Concentrated wave
action on cliffs, around the high water mark, leads to undercutting, the
development of a wave-cut notch and, eventually cliff collapse. A wave cut
platform is often the resultant feature in this case.
Several processes of wave erosion are responsible for undercutting cliff faces.
In those places where no beach is present to absorb wave energy, waves break
directly against the cliff for a longer period before and after the time of high
tide. The hydraulic effect, which is the impact of the water itself, is the basic
process. The shock pressure from the weight of water as it is forced forwards
and downwards by the breaking wave is enormous. Each breaking event may last
for only one or two seconds, but it is not long before the next breaking wave
repeats the punishment on the rock face. Since wave energy is proportional to
the height of the breaking wave, average pressures are greatest along high
energy coasts and under storm conditions. All types of rock weaknesses
whether joints, bedding planes or faults, are ruthlessly exploited until blocks of
rock are loosened and break away. Softer materials such as deposits of boulder
clay and glacial sands can simply be washed away during periods of high wave
A second process, considered by some to be responsible for the greatest
coastal erosion, is abrasion. Pebbles, stones and smaller sized particles are
stirred up and moved by waves. Breaking Waves fling these against the rock
face, knocking off protruding edges in hard rocks and loosening outer edges in
weak rocks. The greater the size of the breaking wave, the larger its potential
load and the greater the damage is can cause. During storms boulders are added
to the list of missiles that the waves throw at cliff faces.
Other processes of coastal erosion also contribute. Attrition is the process
whereby particles are reduced in size and rounded off by colliding with one
another as they are washed along in the waves. Attritions influence is seen in
the smooth appearance of many cliff faces below the high tide mark. It is also
thought to be the main process responsible for the rounding off of boulders
lying at the head of the beach after detachment from the cliff. The effect of

compressed air, sometimes labelled cavitation, is believed to add to the

pressures exerted on rock faces by breaking waves. Pockets of air in joints,
notches and caves are trapped by the great speed at which waves break. The
resulting compression forces out powerful jets of spray upwards on to the rock
faces above. Its most likely contribution is to the weakening and break up of
jointed rocks. Taken together, marine processes of erosion are so efficient at
picking out differences in resistance between soft and hard bands of rock that,
by removing the soft rock, the otherwise more resistant bands of hard rock
become more exposed and subject to increased levels of wave attack.

Abrasion (also
known as
Hydraulic action


-Rock on cliff
- High-energy waves pick up shingle
and abrade the base of the cliffs. The
result is a wave-cut notch. The cliff is
undermined and retreats through
rockfall leaving a wave cut platform.
- Pressuring
- The water traps air in cracks and
caves in the rock.
- Air and water are forced under
pressure into joints and bedding planes
in the rocks. The rocks weaken and
hydraulic action depends on the
density of the joints, etc.
- Rusting / dissolving
-Salt in the seawater slowly dissolves
the cliffs.
- Some rock minerals are susceptible
to solution.



- Rock on rock
- Particles carried by the waves crash
against each other and are broken up
into smaller particles.

- The impact of rainwater, wind and

frost on the cliffs.
- Rainwater can cause surface erosion.
- Frost shattering can occur in colder
- Rainwater can also increase the
chances of mass movement occurring.

Wave Pounding:

- Wind (Aeolian) erosion can aid in the

erosion of the cliffs.
- Smashing
- Steep waves have great energy,
which is released forward as they
break against the cliffs.
- Constant pounding can cause great
damage to both natural cliffs, and
man-made sea defences.
- In storm conditions the waves may
create up to 30 tonnes per square
metre of pressure.

Landforms of coastal erosion

Cliff profiles
The shape of a cliff cross-section is known as the cliff profile. Cliff profiles
owe their form to the geology, sub-aerial processes and wave energy along a
given stretch of coastline.

Variations in profiles reflect:

Rock type and resistance to erosion
Presence or otherwise of lines of weakness
Coastal structure
Whether the cliff is active or inactive
Coastal erosion processes create a number of significant landforms. There
are a number of factors which affect the rate of this erosion:
i) Rock Type A more resistant rock, such as granite, will be eroded
slowly, whilst a leds resistant rock, such as clay or mud, can be eroded
very quickly.
ii) Jointing / Faulting The more faults and joints a rock has the more
susceptible it is to erosion, both from coastal and sub-aerial processes.
iii) Coastal Rock Arrangement A coastline with rocks that run parallel
to the coast is called a concordant or Pacific coastline. One that has
rocks running at right angles to the coast is called a discordant or
Atlantic coastline.

Landforms of coastal erosion

The sea cliff is the main landform along coasts where marine erosion is
dominant. The basic formation of a sea cliff is the same everywhere. Waves
attack the base of the newly exposed rock faces. By hydraulic action and
abrasion, and the other processes of coast erosion, the base of the cliff is
undercut to forma wave-cut notch. The rock face above the effects of wave
action begins to overhang. As waves continue their relentless attack upon the
base of the cliff, the size of the overhang increases until the weight of the
rock above can no longer be supported and a section of the cliff collapses.
Active marine erosion begins again at the base of the cliff after the waves have
removed the loose rock, leading to further collapses and gradual retreat inland
of the position of the cliff. Therefore every cliff coastline is a sign that land is
being lost. As a consequence of cliff retreat another landform. The wave-cut
platform, is formed. This is the rock exposed in the inter-tidal zone at low tide,
which slopes gently inwards towards the sea. Its surface is well planed but
broken up by numerous furrows, trenches and hollows
running through it. The detailed form of the platform is
related to the qualities of the rock. On chalk, a relatively
soft and homogenous rock, the surface tends to be even
with only one or two minor furrows etched into its
surface and the platform can be quite broad. Whereas
below the granite cliffs of Cornwall, where hardness and
massive jointing are the main rock characteristics. Any
platforms produced are small and irregular due to attacks
on the joints. A wide wave-cut platform affords
protection to the cliff faces behind because some of the
energy of the waves is consumed before the base of the
cliff is reached. However, this only gives temporary relief
because protection is lost after the level of the platform
is reduced by abrasion. Every rock outcrop has points
within it where wave attack is faster and more
pronounced. These usually coincide with lines of weakness,
notably joints within rocks and faults or bedding planes
between bands of rock.

This describes the mechanical and chemical properties of rocks. Coherent rocks
which have interlocking crystals, strongly cemented particles and a few lines of
weakness (joints and faults), resist erosion and support steep angled slopes.
Most igneous and metamorphic rocks are highly resistant. So, too, are some
sedimentary rocks such as Old Red Sandstone. In contrast incoherent rocks,
such as clay and sands, erode more easily. Sometimes this results in low-angles
cliff profiles. However, weak rocks undercut by wave action often fail by
slumping. The result may be almost vertical cliff profiles.


1. Vertical cliffs
Few weaknesses are exposed to wave attack. The slow rate of collapse means
that rock broken off in cliff collapses can be removed quickly to leave a clean

Cliffs withhard
In homogenous,
rocks or in steepness
bIn resistant rocks with a
cIn hard rocks with horizontal
rocks such
dip towards
which lead to
to jagged,
These cliffs
areas composed
with different

aBenched cliffs with steeper

bWeak rock above and more

profiles where resistant rocks

outcrop. The slope at the base
tends to be kept steep by wave
action, irrespective of rock

resistant rock below. The low angle

at the top of the cliff is a
reflection of weathering and mass
movement, whereas the vertical
face of the cliff below reflects
active undercutting by waves on a
more resistant rock upon which a
steeper angle can be maintained.

3. Cliffs with low angles

aOutcrops of weak, soft or

cResistant rock above and weak rock

below. Examples of these cliff profiles
are found along the South coast of
England and on the Isle of Wight where
percolates through the chalk to keep
the clay below saturated, which provides
a lubricated surface along which
landslips occur from time to time.
Conditions are especially favourable
where the dip of the rock is towards the
sea. The chalk forms a more vertical
inner cliff than the gently sloping
undercliff of clay, which is vertical only
on the outer cliff where it is steepened
by the wave action.


cliffs little or
unaffected by present wave
action. Increasing freedom
from wave attack results in a
decline in profile steepness.

unconsolidated rocks, such as

sands or boulder clay. The rock
does not possess the strength
to maintain a steep angle. The
face often shows evidence of
iNot affected by waves, but
slides and slumps so that the
still subject to weathering and
angle of slope varies from top
The angle
to bottom,
as well
increasing vegetation coverof
to place
the same effect
stretch on cliff
has an
to stabilise the old cliff.
of coastline.


a small part still

affected by waves. Present
wave action is achieving little
before steepening the base
before the degraded inactive
cliff face is reached. This type
is sometimes labelled a hogs
back cliff.

rock structure which

Vertical cliffs develop in horizontally bedded sedimentary rocks and in

volcanic rocks formed from horizontal layers of lava and ash. These
cliffs, undercut by wave action, retreat parallel to themselves, and
maintain their steep slope angle by rockfall.
Seaward dipping strata have profiles which correspond to the angle of dip
of the bedding planes. Blocks weakened by erosion and weathering fail
along these planes and slide into the sea.

Landward-dipping strata for less steep cliffs. This is because eroded and
weathered rock particles are not easily dislodged from the cliff face.
At a regional scale, the
direction in which rocks run in
relation to the coast has a
planform of coastlines Rock
outcrops which run parallel to
the coastlines. Rock outcrops
which run parallel to the coast
coastlines. There are known as
accordant coasts. When rocks
of different types crop out at
right angles to the coast, the
resultant planform is more
resistant rocks form headlands
and the less resistant ones
form bays. Such coastlines are called discordant.The area of south-east Dorset
known as the Isle of Purbeck has examples of both accordant and discordant

Sub-aerial processes
The effects of non-marine processes in the coast zone can be observes most
clearly on cliff tops. Here various types of weathering and mass movement are
the main determinants of morphology, although undermining by waves at the
bottom of the cliff encourages earlier and more rapid movement at the top.
These are grouped together under the label sub-aerial processes which literally
means those occurring at the base of the atmosphere. The influence of subaerial processes such as mass movement and weathering is particularly evident
on incoherent rocks. Heavy rainfall is the trigger for many movements. In coast
zones where weak or unconsolidated clays and sands form the surface outcrops,
heavy rainfall alone can lead to direct erosion on the cliff face from sheet wash
and the flow of rivulets. In times of stronger flow this leads to gulleying.
Water seeping into the ground during and after periods of rain produces a
saturated mass which slides down the cliff, leaving a pile of loose material at
the bottom of the cliff, which the wave sat high tide soon remove. In the UK
most cliff tops are vegetation covered which delays but does not stop mass

movements. Soil creep is taking place on even the gentlest of slopes, albeit
slowly. Slides occur from time to time on slopes where surface layers of grass
and soil are thin. After periods of prolonged and heavy rainfall, when the ground
has absorbed all the water it can take, the weight of the saturated soil becomes
too great and it tears away the grass at the top of the slope. Once its hold upon
the top of the slope is broke, the mass easily slides over the wet surface below,
particularly where it overlies unconsolidated rocks such as boulder clay and
glacial sands.
Slumping is another type of mass movement that occurs in the coast zone.
Slumps are distinguished from slides by the element of rotation in the flow of
the mass as it moves down a curves slip plane. Many slumps are triggered off by
undercutting at the base of the cliffs, so that the mass becomes unsupported.
Movement by the mass is encouraged by previous saturation from heavy rains
creating a well-lubricated plane of movement.

Wave energy
Coastlines with long fetches experience high wave energy. Wave energy is also
higher on windward coasts than on sheltered leeward coasts. Many tropical
islands which are exposed to the prevailing trade winds receive higher wave
energy. On higher-energy coasts, the effect of erosion on the cliff profiles
tends to be greater than the effect of sub-aerial processes. Along such
coastlines, rockfalls are easily removed by wave action, allowing erosion to begin
Low-energy coastlines have one or more of the following characteristics: a short
fetch, a sheltered situation, and shallow water offshore which absorbs wave
energy. In low-energy situations, sub-aerial processes may begin to dominate.

Rock debris may accumulate at the cliff base, and the cliff slope angles may be
lowered by weathering and mass movement.

Human activity
Much building and recreation occurs at the coast, and this increases pressure on
cliff tops, making them more liable to erosion and subsidence. The building of
sea defences upsets the
dynamic equilibrium of the

Wave refraction
It is very rare for waves to
approach a regular uniform
coastline, as most have a
variety of bays, beaches
and headlands.Because of
these features, the depth
of water around a coast
varies and as a wave
approaches a coast its
progress is modified due to
friction from the seabed,
halting the motion of waves.
As waves approach a coast they are refracted so that their energy is
concentrated around headlands but reduced around bays. Waves then tend to
approach coastline parallel to it, and their energy decreases as water depth

Sea level changes and coastal landforms

Worldwide climate change during the last ten thousand years has meant rising
sea levels. This is the result of ice melting after the Great Ice Age has
released its grip on North America, Europe and Asia. In area of higher relief in
the British Isles the effects of sea level changes are confines to valleys. Here,
drowning has created more heavily indented coastlines and increased the
number of islands. Where the coastal structure is discordant, rias (drowned
river valleys) and fjords (drowned glaciated valleys) are the two principal
landforms. Along coastlines with a concordant structure, the most distinctive
feature formed by drowning islands aligned parallel to the coast.

The continued temperature change and subsequent sea level rise will increase
the hazards of coastal flooding and erosion. Worldwide, up to 100 million people
living in low-lying coastal areas could be at risk. The UK is not immune to these
problems. Rising sea-level and more frequent storms are likely to increase
damage to coastal settlements, harbours and other infrastructional features. In
some places the coastline may retreat by up to a kilometre or more. South-east
Britain is most vulnerable to flooding. Rising sea-levels in the South-east would
be made worse because the region is also sinking as the process of isostatic
readjustment continues. Beaches, slat marshes, sand dunes and mudflats the
coasts natural defences are threatened by rising sea-levels. Indeed, almost
one-third of EU beaches are already thought to be eroding.

Features of Sea Level Change

Raised Beaches

Drowned Coasts:

Caused by pre-glacial erosion of a Sea Level rise after the last Ice Age
caused estuaries and inlets to be
During the Ice Age the sea levels fall
leaving the old coastline high above This occurred in South West England,
the present sea level.
drowning many river valleys around
the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, and
Since the end of the Ice Age sea creating Rias.
levels have risen again, but not to
their previous levels.
In other, more northern areas, glacial
valleys were drowned to create
The raised beaches continue to be Fjords.
above the present sea level by quite a

Key question 3: What are the processes of marine transport and

deposition and what are the resultant landforms?

Transport and deposition in the coastal zone

Sources of beach sediments

Beaches are an accumulation of sand and shingle deposited by waves in the

shore zone. The sediments which form beaches enter the coastal system
through rivers, cliff erosion and wave transport.
Rivers account for around 90% of beach sediments. Sand and shingle
transported as bedload enter the coastal system through river mouths.
Although cliff erosion is very active on some coastlines, it provides less than 5%
of all beach sediments.
Some beach sediments have been combed from the sea bed. Coastal sediments
remain within well-defined stretches of coastline known as sediment cells.
Sediment cells are self-contained there is very little movement of sand and
shingle into adjacent cells. Eleven major sediment cells have been defined in
England and Wales. Each cell contains several sub-cells. Sediment cells have
very important implications for geomorphological processes and coastal

Landform 1: The beach

The beach is the zone of deposition between high and low tidal limits, which
shelves downwards towards the sea. An idealised beach profile can be split into
two parts. The lower beach is characterised by a gentle gradient, because it is
most likely to be built of fine grain sand and mud. Minor features include
ripples, ridges and runnels. The upper beach can usually be distinguished by its
steeper profile which reflects its composition of coarser sediments such as
shingle and pebbles. Ridges form in the shingle and maintain their position
longer than minor features in the sandy part. Highest of all is the storm ridge.
Below at different levels are beach ridges called berms. Where the shingle and
sand parts meet, beach cusps sometimes protrude down the beach.

Landform 2: Spits
- A long, narrow ridge of sand attached at one end to the coast.
- Built up by long shore drift transporting material along the coast.
- At a bend or break (for an estuary) in the coastline the material being carried
is dropped. However it is deposited away from the coastline.
- As the spit builds out to sea the end is affected more by the wind and by wave
currents, causing the end to curve towards the shore, to create a hook end.
- Material often accumulates in the area of standing water that occurs behind a
spit, and this can lead to the formation of salt marshes.
- Spits can be areas where large sand dunes build up, nearer the back of it.
An example is Spurn Head, Humberside.

Classic spit formation

Spurn Head, Humberside

Step 1:Longshore drift moves material beyond

the change in coastline
Step 2: The spit is formed when the material is
Step 3: Over time the spit grows in length and
may develop a hook if wind direction changes
further out
Step 4: Waves cannot get behind the spit,

Landform 3: Bars

creating a sheltered area where silt is deposited

and mud flats or salt marshes form

- A ridge of sand that blocks off a bay or river mouth. It will create a lagoon
behind it is across a non-river bay.An example of a sand bar is SlaptonLey in

Classic Bar formation

Landform 4: Tombolos
- A tombolo is a depositionlandform
such as a spit or bar which forms a
narrow piece of land between an island
or offshore rock and a mainland shore,
or between two islands or offshore
rocks. They usually form because the
island causes waverefraction, depositing
sand and shingle moved by longshore
drift in each direction around the island
where the waves meet. Eustatic sea
level rise may also contribute to accretion as material is pushed up with rising
sea levels. This is the case with Chesil Beach which connects the Isle of
Portland to Dorset in England which is notable as the shingle ridge is parallel
rather than perpendicular to the coast.

Classic Tombolo formation

Landform 5: Sand dunes

Sand dunes are small ridges or hills of sand found at the top of a beach, above
the usual maximum reach of the waves. They form from wind blown sand that is
initially deposited against an obstruction such as a bush, driftwood or rock. As
more sand particles are deposited the dunes grow in size, forming rows at right
angles to the prevailing wind direction. If vegetation, such as Marram Grass and
Sand Couch, begins to grow on the dune its roots will help to bind the sand
together and stabilise the dunes. An example in Wales is KenfigDunes which is a

Key question 4: What is the role of geology in the development

of coastal landforms?

Case study: The Dorset Coast.

There are relatively few examples within the British Isles where the geological
structure is concordant to the coast, but the Dorset coast west of Swanage is
one of them. The alignment of rock outcrops parallel to the shoreline is more
typical of coasts which border the Pacific Ocean. Although many similar coastal
landforms of erosion are produced, there are some differences in appearance.
The study of the Dorset coast is an interesting one as it is possible to observe

the stages in sequences of coastal erosion at different points along the coast
which are relatively close to one another.

Stair Hole
The early stages can be seen in that
stretch of coastline near Lulworth Cove.
Here, Stair Hole can be found where
the limestone ridge has been breached,
but not removed. Weaknesses in the
ridge were exploited by waves, which
opened up access to the next layer of rock which is softer. The limestone has
been left exposed as a narrow ridge while the less resistant Wealden Sands and
clays behind it have been more rapidly eroded. Wave erosion is now
concentrated in a west to east direction following the line of the weaker
Wealden beds. I9nland the cliff tops are being attacked by sub aerial processes
leading to gulleying and slumping in the weak sands and clays.

Lulworth Cove
This symmetrical bay is more circular and more enclosed than those typically
found along discordant coastlines. This is because it has been easier for waves
to extend it in a west to east direction following the line of the les resistant
Wealden Beds. The gap in the limestone across the entrance is its narrowest
part, while the rates of erosion on the chalk at the back of the bay are lower
than those on the sands and clay at the sides.
Further west, St. Oswalds Bay shows what happens next. This is a double bay
formed by the amalgamation of two coves. The only sign that remains of the
limestone barrier that formerly protected the coast from erosion is the line of
rock stacks east from Durdle Door. The final stage, the return of an almost
straight coastline, is exemplified by the stretch of coast west of Durdle Door.
Apart from the rock promontory and natural arch at Durdle Door, the only
remnants of the limestone ridge are out to sea.

Formation of Caves, Arches Stacks and Stumps.

Erosion can create caves, arches and stacks along a headland. Again weathering
can also help to create these landforms.
Caves occur when the waves force their way into cracks in the cliff face.
The water contains sand and other materials that help to grind away at
the rock until the cracks become a cave.
If the cave is formed in a headland, it may eventually break through
forming an arch.
The arch will gradually become bigger and bigger until it can no longer
support the top of the arch. When the arch collapses, it leaves the
headland on one side and a stack (a tall column of rock) on the other.

The stack itself is attacked by waves from all sides. It is gradually

reduced in size, forming a stump(Old Harry) and eventually it collapses so
that all the signs of where the coastline used to lie disappear


Formation of caves, arches stacks and stumps

Past paper exam questions

With reference to your chosen geomorphological environment explain the
relative importance of geology to the work of erosion processes.

2. Discuss the contribution of high energy events to the formation and

modification of landforms in your selected geomorphic environment.
Examiners notes:
The best answers were able to name a coastal storm event and then explore the multiple
impacts of storm surges (flooding), increased marine erosion, and the impact of torrential
rainfall on subaerial processes. The concept of upsetting the dynamic equilibrium is a
useful framework for a response. Many of the essays were extremely competent but the
choice of naming of the stretch of coastline posed problems for some. Many chose just a
bay such as Lulworth, or a single location such as Mappleton when a stretch of coastline
(eg. Flamborough to Spurn Point in Holderness) gave so much more scope. Another
common mistake was to pick two widely separated stretches of coast such as Holderness
and Dorset thus committing a rubric offence. Good answers explored both physical (rock

type/differential erosion) and human reasons (coastal land values and cost/benefits) as to
why rapid coastal erosion was more problematic in some places than others, and also
looked at knock on effects such as terminal groyne syndrome. Again reference to the
shoreline managements plans was useful.
An example of a sound essay which achieved level 3 marks is shown below:
Holderness Coast There is a major problem with erosion on some parts of the Holderness
coast which overall is the fastest eroding coast in the United Kingdom (2m per year). At
different parts of the coast there is different amounts of erosion. Firstly there is
Flamborough Head, there is very little erosion here because the land is made up of chalk
and this means it is a hard rock and it is not easily eroded. However as you go down the
coast you come to parts of the coast which is made up of boulder clay which is very weak
as it contains 60% clay which is unconsolidated and easily eroded. Places such as
Mappleton and Hornsea have problems with erosion. Hornsea is a holiday town and
because of this erosion they have had to put up sea walls into the cliff and groynes onto
the beach so protecting the coast. At Mappleton they have put in rock revetments and
rock groynes in order to protect a coastal road as erosion is a big problem. This has led to
knock-on impacts down the coast. There are also problems down the coast at Easington
where a gas terminal can be found. Here there is severe erosion because the cliffs are
made of clay. This means that when it is eroded it does not create a beach and the beach
is the best form of coastal defence. Instead there is clay which creates no protection and
because of this rock armour has had to be placed at the foot of the cliff and they are
building a tyre reef. Finally there is Spurn Head which is a spit at the end of this coast
where all the eroded material is deposited. Although rapid erosion can occur in times of
storms currently this area has been designated as a do nothing zone.