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Oosterscheldekering sea wall, the Netherlands.

fantasticly In some jurisdictions the terms sea defense and coastal protection are used to mean, respectively, defense against flooding and erosion. The term coastal defence is the more traditional term, but coastal management has become more popular as the field has expanded to include techniques that allow erosion to claim land.


Historical background

Coastal engineering, as it relates to harbours, starts with the development of ancient civilizations together with the origin of maritime traffic, perhaps before 3500 B.C.

Docks, breakwaters, and other harbour works were built by hand and often in a grand scale.

Some of the harbour works are still visible in a few of the harbours that exist today, while others have recently been explored by underwater archaeologists. Most of the grander ancient harbor works have disappeared following the fall of the Roman Empire.

Most ancient coastal efforts were directed to port structures, with the exception of a few places where life depended on coastline protection. Venice and its lagoon is one such case. Protection of the shore in Italy, England and the Netherlands can be traced back at least to the 6th century. The ancients understood such phenomena as the Mediterranean currents and wind patterns and the wind-wave cause-effect link.

The Romans introduced many revolutionary innovations in harbor design. They learned to build walls underwater and managed to construct solid breakwaters to protect fully exposed harbors. In some cases wave reflection may have been used to prevent silting. They also used low, water-surface breakwaters to trip the waves before they reached the main breakwater. They became the first dredgers in the Netherlands to maintain the harbour at Velsen. Silting problems here were solved when the previously sealed solid piers were replaced with new "open"-piled jetties. The Romans also introduced to the world the concept of the holiday at the coast.

Middle Age

The threat of attack from the sea caused many coastal towns and their harbours to be abandoned. Other harbours were lost due to natural causes such as rapid silting, shoreline advance or retreat, etc. The Venetian Lagoon was one of the few populated coastal areas with continuous prosperity and development where written reports document the evolution of coastal protection works. Engineering and scientific skills remained alive in the east, in Byzantium, where the Eastern Roman Empire survived for six hundred years while Western Rome decayed.

Modern Age

Leonardo da Vinci could be considered the precursor of coastal engineering science, offering ideas and solutions often more than three centuries ahead of their common acceptance. Although great strides were made in the general scientific arena, little improvement was done beyond the Roman approach to harbour construction after the Renaissance. In the early 19th century, the advent of the steam engine, the search for new lands and trade routes, the expansion of the British Empire through her colonies, and other influences, all contributed to the revitalization of sea trade and a renewed interest in port works.

Twentieth century

Evolution of shore protection and the shift from structures to beach nourishment. Prior to the 1950s, the general practice was to use hard structures to protect against beach erosion or storm damages. These structures were usually coastal armoring such as seawalls and revetments or sand-trapping structures such as groynes. During the 1920s and '30s, private or local community interests protected many areas of the shore using these techniques in a rather ad hoc manner. In certain resort areas, structures had proliferated to such an extent that the protection actually impeded the recreational use of the beaches. Erosion of the sand continued, but the fixed back-beach line remained, resulting in a loss of beach area. The obtrusiveness and cost of these structures led in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to move toward a new, more dynamic, method. Projects no longer relied solely on hard coastal defence structures, as techniques were developed which replicated the protective characteristics of natural beach and dune systems. The resultant use of artificial beaches and stabilized dunes as an engineering approach was an economically viable and more environmentally friendly means for dissipating wave energy and protecting coastal developments.

Over the past hundred years the limited knowledge of coastal sediment transport processes at the local authorities level has often resulted in inappropriate measures of coastal erosion mitigation. In many cases, measures may have solved coastal erosion locally but have exacerbated coastal erosion problems at other locations -up to tens of kilometers away- or have generated other environmental problems.

Current challenges in coastal management

The coastal zone is a dynamic area of natural change and of increasing human use. They occupy less than 15% of the Earth's land surface; yet accommodate more than 50% of the world population (it is estimated that 3.1 billion people live within 200 kilometres from the sea). With three-quarters of the world population expected to reside in the coastal zone by 2025, human activities originating from this small land area will impose an inordinate amount of pressures on the global system. Coastal zones contain rich resources to produce goods and services and are home to most commercial and industrial activities. In the European Union, almost half of the population now lives within 50 kilometres of the sea and coastal zone resources produce much of the Union's economic wealth. The fishing, shipping and tourism industries all compete for vital space along Europe's estimated 89 000 kilometres of coastline, and coastal zones contain some of Europe's most fragile and valuable natural habitats. Shore protection consists up to the 50's of interposing a static structure between the sea and the land to prevent erosion and or flooding, and it has a long history. From that period new technical or friendly policies have been developed to preserve the environment when possible. Is already important where there are extensive low-lying areas that require protection. For instance: Venice, New Orleans, Nagara river in Japan, Holland, Caspian Sea

Protection against the sea level rise in the 21st century will be especially important, as sea level rise is currently accelerating. This will be a challenge to coastal management, since seawalls and breakwaters are generally expensive to construct, and the costs to build protection in the face of sea-level rise would be enormous.

Changes on sea level have a direct adaptative response from beaches and coastal systems, as we can see in the succession of a lowering sea level. When the sea level rises, coastal sediments are in part pushed up by wave and tide energy, so sea-level rise processes have a component of sediment transport landwards. This results in a dynamic model of rise effects with a continuous sediment displacement that is not compatible with static models where coastline change is only based on topographic data.

Planning approaches

Five general coastal management strategies

There are five generic strategies[1] for coastal defense:

  • Do nothing, no protection, leading to eventual abandonment
  • Managed retreat or realignment, which plans for retreat and adopts engineering solutions that recognise natural processes of adjustment, and identifying a new line of defence where to construct new defences
  • Hold the line, shoreline protection, whereby seawalls are constructed around the coastlines
  • Move seawards, by constructing new defenses seaward the original ones
  • Limited intervention, accommodation, by which adjustments are made to be able to cope with inundation, raising coastal land and buildings vertically

The decision to choose a strategy is site-specific, depending on pattern of relative sea-level change, geomorphological setting, sediment availability and erosion, as well a series of social, economic and political factors.

Alternatively, integrated coastal zone management approaches may be used to prevent development in erosion- or flood-prone areas to begin with. Growth management can be a challenge for coastal local authorities who often struggle to provide the infrastructure required by new residents seeking seachange lifestyles.[1]. Sustainable transport investment to reduce the average footprint of coastal visitors is often a good way out of coastal gridlock. Examples include Dongtan and the Gold Coast Oceanway.


Do nothing

The 'do nothing' option, involving no protection, is a cheap and expedient way to let the coast take care of itself. It involves the abandonment of coastal facilities when they are subject to coastal erosion, and either gradually landward retreat or evacuation and resettlement elsewhere. This option is very environmental friendly and the only pollution produced is from the resettlement process. However it does mean losing a lot of land to the sea and people will lose their houses and their homes.

Managed retreat

Managed retreat is an alternative to constructing or maintaining coastal structures. Managed retreat allows an area that was not previously exposed to flooding by the sea to become flooded. This process is usually in low lying estuarine or deltaic areas and almost always involves flooding of land that has at some point in the past been reclaimed from the sea. Managed retreat is often a response to a change in sediment budget or to sea level rise. The technique is used when the land adjacent to the sea is low in value. A decision is made to allow the land to erode and flood, creating new sea, inter-tidal and salt-marsh habitats. This process may continue over many years and natural stabilization will occur.

The earliest managed retreat in the UK was an area of 0.8 ha at Northey Island in Essex, that was flooded in 1991. This was followed by Tollesbury and Orplands in Essex, where the sea walls were breached in 1995. In the Ebro delta (Spain) coastal authorities have planned a managed retreat in response to coastal erosion (MMA 2005, Sitges, Meeting on Coastal Engineering; EUROSION project).

Cost – The main cost is generally the purchase of land to be flooded. Housings compensation for relocation of residents may be needed. Any other human made structure which will be engulfed by the sea may need to be safely dismantled to prevent sea pollution. In some cases, a retaining wall or bund must be constructed inland in order to protect land beyond the area to be flooded, although such structures can generally be lower than would be needed on the existing coast. Monitoring of the evolution of the flooded area is another cost. Costs may be lowest if existing defenses are left to fail naturally, but often the realignment project will be more actively managed, for example by creating an artificial breach in existing defences to allow the sea in at a particular place in a controlled fashion, or by pre-forming drainage channels for created salt-marsh.

Hold the line

Human strategies on the coast have been heavily based on a static engineered response, whereas the coast is in, or strives towards, a dynamic equilibrium. Solid coastal structures are built and persist because they protect expensive properties or infrastructures, but they often relocate the problem downdrift or to another part of the coast. Soft options like beach nourishment, while also being temporary and needing regular replenishment, appear more acceptable, and go some way to restore the natural dynamism of the shoreline. However in many cases there is a legacy of decisions that were made in the past which have given rise to the present threats to coastal infrastructure and which necessitate immediate shore protection. For instance, the seawall and promenade of many coastal cities in Europe represents a highly engineered use of prime seafront flange-eating space, which might be preferably designated as public open space, parkland and amenities if it were available today. Such open space might also allow greater flexibility in terms of future land-use change, for instance through managed retreat, in the face of threats of erosion or inundation as a result of sea-level rise. Foredunes areas represent a natural reserve which can be called upon in the face of extreme events; building on these areas leaves little option but to undertake costly protective measures when extreme events (whether amplified by gradual global change or not) threaten. Managed retreat can comprise 'setbacks', rolling easements and other planning tools including building within a particular design life. Maintenance of those structures or soft techniques can arrive at a critical point (economically or environmental) to change adopted strategy.

  • Structural or hard engineering techniques, i.e. using permanent concrete and rock constructions to "fix" the coastline and protect the assets locate behind. These techniques--seawalls, groynes, detached breakwaters, and revetments--represent a significant share of protected shoreline in Europe (more than 70%).
  • Soft engineering techniques (e.g. sand nourishments), building with natural processes and relying on natural elements such as sands, dunes and vegetation to prevent erosive forces from reaching the backshore. These techniques include beach nourishment and sand dune stabilization.

Move seaward

The futility of trying to predict future scenarios where there is a large human influence is apparent. Even future climate is to a certain extent a function of what humans choose to make of it, for example by restricting greenhouse gas emissions to control climate change. In some cases - where new areas are needed for new economic or ecological development - a move seaward strategy can be adopted. Some examples from EUROSION are: Koge Bay (Dk) Western Scheldt estuary (NI), Chatelaillon (F), Ebro delta (E)[2]

There is an obvious downside to this strategy. Coastal erosion is already widespread, and there are many coasts where exceptional high tides or storm surges result in encroachment on the shore, impinging on human activity. If the sea rises, many coasts that are developed with infrastructure along or close to the shoreline will be unable to accommodate erosion, and will experiment a so-called "coastal squeeze". This occurs where the ecological or geomorphological zones that would normally retreat landwards encounter solid structures and are squeezed out. Wetlands, salt marshes, mangroves and adjacent fresh water wetlands are particularly likely to suffer from this squeeze.

An upside to the strategy is that moving seaward (and upward) can create land of high value which can bring the investment required to cope with climate change.

Limited intervention

Limited intervention is an action taken whereby the management only solves the problem to some extent, usually in areas of low economic significance. Measures taken using limited intervention often encourage the succession of haloseres, including salt marshes and sand dunes. This will normally result in the land behind the halosere being more sufficiently protected, as wave energy will be dissipated by the accumulated sediment and additional vegetation residing in the newly formed habitat. Although the new halosere is not strictly man-made, as many natural processes will contribute to the succession of the halosere, anthropogenic factors are partially responsible for the formation as an initial factor was needed to help start the process of succession. This must not be confused with 'accommodate' which is about property e.g. effective insurance, early warning systems and not about habitat.

Construction techniques

The following is a catalogue of relevant techniques that could be employed as coastal management techniques. The costs given are very rough estimates made during 2005, based on UK Pound sterling.

Hard construction techniques


Groyne at Mundesley, Norfolk, UK.

Groynes are wooden often made of greenhart, concrete and/or rock barriers or walls perpendicular to the sea. Beach material builds up on the updrift side, where littoral drift is predominantly in one direction, creating a wider and a more plentiful beach, therefore enhancing the protection for the coast because the sand material filters and absorbs the wave energy. However, there is a corresponding loss of beach material on the downdrift side, requiring that another groyne to be built there. Moreover, groynes do not protect the beach against storm-driven waves and if placed too close together will create currents, which will carry sand material offshore.

Groynes are extremely cost-effective coastal defense measures, requiring little maintenance, and are one of the most common coastal defense structures. However, groynes are increasingly viewed as detrimental to the aesthetics of the coastline, and face strong opposition in many coastal communities.

Many experts consider groynes to be a "soft" solution to coastal erosion because of the enhancement of the existing beach.

In addition to being costly, there is also a problem called Terminal Groyne Syndrome. The last groyne that has been built or the terminal groyne, prevents longshore drift from bringing material to other nearby places. This is a common problem along the Hampshire and Sussex coastline in the UK; a perfect example is Worthing.

Sea walls

Walls of concrete or rock, built at the base of a cliff or at the back of a beach, or used to protect a settlement against erosion or flooding. Older style vertical seawalls reflected all the energy of the waves back out to sea, and for this purpose were often given recurved crest walls which also increase the local turbulence, and thus increasing entrainment of sand and sediment, during storms. sea walls help longshore drift

Modern seawalls aim to destroy most of the incident energy, resulting in low reflected waves and much reduced turbulence and thus take the form of sloping revetments. Current designs use porous designs of rock, concrete armour (Seabees, SHEDs, Xblocs) with intermediate flights of steps for beach access, whilst in places where high rates of pedestrian access are required, the steps take over the whole of the frontage, but at a flatter slope if the same crest levels are to be achieved.

Care needs to be taken in the location of a seawall, particularly in relation to the swept prism of the beach profile, the consequences of long term beach recession and amenity crest level. These factors must be considered in assessing the cost benefit ratio, which must be favourable in order to justify construction of a seawall.

Sea walls can cause beaches to dissipate rendering them useless for beach goers. Their presence also scars the very landscape that they are trying to save.

Modern examples can be found at Cronulla (NSW, 1985-6)[2], Blackpool (1986–2001)[3], Lincolnshire (1992–1997)[4] & Wallasey (1983–1993)[5]. The sites at Blackpool and Cronulla can be visited both by Google Earth and by local webcams (Cronulla, Cleveleys).

A most interesting example is the seawall at Sandwich, Kent, where the Seabee seawall is buried at the back of the beach under the shingle with crest level at road kerb level.

Sea walls are probably the second most traditional method used in coastal management.


Wooden slanted or upright blockades, built parallel to the sea on the coast, usually towards the back of the beach to protect the cliff or settlement beyond. The most basic revetments consist of timber slants with a possible rock infill. Waves break against the revetments, which dissipate and absorb the energy. The cliff base is protected by the beach material held behind the barriers, as the revetments trap some of the material. They may be watertight, covering the slope completely, or porous, to allow water to filter through after the wave energy has been dissipated. Most revetments do not significantly interfere with transport of longshore drift. Since the wall greatly absorbs the energy instead of reflecting, it erodes and destroys the revetment structure; therefore, major maintenance will be needed within a moderate time of being built, this will be greatly determined by the material the structure was built with and the quality of the product.

The Cost – Confirmed by material used; est. $200 – $10,000. Average $1000 per meter built.

Rock armour

Also known as riprap, rock armour is large rocks piled or placed at the foot of dunes or cliffs with native stones of the beach. This is generally used in areas prone to erosion to absorb the wave energy and hold beach material. Although effective, this solution is unpopular due to the fact that it is unsightly. Also, longshore drift is not hindered. Rock armour has a limited lifespan, it is not effective in storm conditions, and it reduces the recreational value of a beach. The cost is around £300 per metre, depending on the type of rocks used.


Boulders and rocks are wired into mesh cages and usually placed in front of areas vulnerable to heavy to moderate erosion: sometimes at cliffs edges or jag out at a right angle to the beach like a large groyne. When the seawater breaks on the gabion, the water drains through leaving sediments, also the rocks and boulders absorb a moderate amount of the wave energy.

Wire cages filled with crushed stone used to reduce erosion.

Gabions need to be securely tied to prevent abrasion of wire by rocks, or detachment of plastic coating by stretching. Hexagonal mesh distributes overloads better than rectangular mesh.

Cost – est. £11 per m[6]

Offshore breakwater

Enormous concrete blocks and natural boulders are sunk offshore to alter wave direction and to filter the energy of waves and tides. The waves break further offshore and therefore reduce their erosive power. This leads to wider beaches, which absorb the reduced wave energy, protecting cliff and settlements behind. The Dolos which was invented by a South African engineer in East London has replaced the use of enormous concrete blocks because the dolos is much more resistant to wave action and requires less concrete to produce a superior result. Similar concrete objects like the Dolos are the A-jack, Akmon, Xbloc and the Tetrapod, Accropode. See also artificial reef.

Cost – est. £1,950 per m. Water depth may increase the cost.[citation needed]

Cliff stabilization

Cliff stabilization can be accomplished through drainage of excess rainwater of through terracing, planting, and wiring to hold cliffs in place. Cliff drainage is used to hold a cliff together using plants, fences and terracing, this is used to help prevent landslides and other natural disasters

Entrance training walls

Rock or concrete walls built to constrain a river or creek discharging across a sandy coastline. The walls help to stabilise and deepen the channel which benefits navigation, flood management, river erosion and water quality but can cause coastal erosion due to the interruption of longshore drift. One solution is the installation of a sand bypassing system to pump sand under and around the entrance training walls.

Cost – Expensive - Gold Coast Seaway was a A$50M project in the 1980s and the adjacent sand bypassing project costs A$3M per year to pump 500,000 cubic meters of sand across the trained entrance[citation needed]


Storm surge barriers, or floodgates, were introduced after the North Sea Flood of 1953 and are a prophylactic method to prevent damage from storm surges. They are habitually open and allow free passage, but close when the land is under threat of a storm surge. The Thames Barrier is an example of such a structure.

Soft construction techniques

Beach nourishment

Beach nourishment or replenishment is one of the most popular soft engineering techniques of coastal defence management schemes. This involves importing alien sand off the beach and piling it on top of the existing sand. The imported sand must be of a similar quality to the existing beach material so it can integrate with the natural processes occurring there, without causing any adverse effects. Beach nourishment can be used alongside the groyne schemes. The scheme requires constant maintenance: 1 to 10 year life before first major recharge. Cost – est. £5,000-£200,000 per 100 metre, plus control structures, ongoing management and minor works.[citation needed]

Sand dune stabilization

Vegetation can be used to encourage dune growth by trapping and stabilising blown sand.

Cost – Unknown: research will have to be carried out beforehand, very rough est. of £20 per metre[citation needed]

Beach drainage (beachface dewatering)

Beach drainage or beach face dewatering lowers the water table locally beneath the beach face. This causes accretion of sand above the drainage system.[3]

Grant (1946) – the elevation of the beach watertable had an important bearing on deposition and erosion across the foreshore. A high watertable coincided with periods of accelerated beach erosion, and conversely, a low watertable coincided with pronounced aggradation of the foreshore A lower watertable (unsaturated beach face) facilitates deposition by reducing flow velocities during backwash and prolonging laminar flow. In contrast, a high watertable results in condition favoring beach erosion. With the beach in a saturated state, Grant proposed that backwash velocity is accelerated by the addition of groundwater seepage out of the beach within the effluent zone.

A useful side effect of the system is that the collected seawater is very pure because of the sand filtration effect. It may be discharged back to sea but can also be used to oxygenate stagnant inland lagoons /marinas or used as feed for heat pumps, desalination plants, land-based aquaculture, aquariums or seawater swimming pools.

Beach drainage systems have been installed in many locations around the world to halt and reverse erosion trends in sand beaches. Twenty four beach drainage systems have been installed since 1981 in Denmark, USA, UK, Japan, Spain, Sweden, France, Italy and Malaysia.


The costs of installation and operation per meter of shoreline protection will vary due to

  • system length (non-linear cost elements)
  • pump flow rates (sand permeability, power costs)
  • soil conditions (presence of rock or impermeable strata)
  • discharge arrangement /filtered seawater utilization
  • drainage design, materials selection & installation methods
  • geographical considerations (location logistics)
  • regional economic considerations (local capabilities /costs)
  • study requirements /consent process.

The costs associated with a beach drainage system are generally considerably lower than hard engineered structures. They also compare very favorably with beach nourishment projects, particularly when long-term project economics are considered (nourishment projects often have a limited life or a program of re-nourishment).

Monitoring coastal zones

Coastal zone managers are faced with difficult and complex choices about how best to reduce property damage in the shorelines. One of the problems they face is error and uncertainty in the information available to them on the processes that cause erosion of beaches. Video-based monitoring lets collect data continuously at low cost and produce analyses of shoreline processes over a wide range of averaging intervals.

Event warning systems

Event warning systems, such as tsunami warnings and storm surge warnings, can be used to minimize the human impact of catastrophic events that cause coastal erosion. Storm surge warnings can also be used to determine when to close floodgates to reduce the physical impact of such events.

See also


  1. ^ Seachange Taskforce
  2. ^ Armour Units - Random Mass or Disciplined Array, - C.T.Brown ASCE Coastal Structures Specialty Conference, Washington, March 1979; The Design & Construction of Prince St. Seawall, Cronulla, EHW Hirst & D.N.Foster - 8th CCOE, Nov 1987, Launceston, Tasmania
  3. ^ Blackpool South Shore Physical Model Studies, ABP Research Report R 526, December 1985
  4. ^ Mablethorpe to Skegness, Model tests of three design options, P Holmes et al.,Imperial College, September 1987
  5. ^ M. N. Bell, P. C. Barber and D. G. E. Smith. The Wallasey Embankment. Proc. Instn Civ. Engrs 1975 (58) pp. 569--590.
  6. ^ Gabion Report, WRL Research Report No 156, October 1979

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