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Coast and Beach

Society And The Beach Environment

Coastal areas of the continental United States comprise only 17% of the land area of the country, but house over one-half of the population. Currently, the population of this zone is above 139 million and expected to rise to 165 million by the year 2015, a rate of growth greater than that of the country as a whole. The coast is attractive for a wide variety of reasons and economic growth of the zone typically follows the growth of the population. Unfortunately, the impacts on the coastal environment are not so positive. Environmental degradation accompanies shoreline development in a variety of forms. Furthermore, development within the coastal zone is increasingly located within high-risk areas of natural or man-made shore degradation.

In many cases, the public or property developer in the coastal region has an incomplete understanding of the coastal environment. Often, the dynamic nature of the beach environment is not properly respected. At higher elevations, where rates of erosion and deposition are much slower, man can construct huge hills to support interstate highways, level other hills to make parking lots, etc., expecting the results to persist for centuries, or at least decades. In a beach environment, however, modifications are ephemeral. Maintaining a parking lot where winds would produce a dune requires removal of tons of sand every year. Even more significantly, because the flow of sediment is so great, modifications intended to have only a local, beneficial effect may influence erosion and deposition far down the beach, in ways which are not beneficial.

Coastal retreat is a significant issue along many areas of coastline. Efforts are ongoing to quantify the rate of retreat along the coast, to designate areas of particular risk, and to match appropriate uses with the location. Even in areas with minimal retreat, the movement of sediment along the shore can impact the property owner significantly. Utilization of engineered shoreline protection can affect nearby properties. Sediment budgets for a shoreline can be impacted by the damming of rivers upstream. Even artificial means of beach nourishment can have unintended environmental impacts. One might be able to protect the beach in front of a beach house by installing a concrete barrier, but this might result in eroding the supports to the highway giving access to the beach house.

The costs of shoreline protection are high, yet they are rarely considered when the development of a coastal property is contemplated. Furthermore, these costs are often borne by the taxpayer rather than the property owner. The long-range outlook for all such costs is that they will ultimately exceed the value of the property and are likely to be exacerbated by rising sea levels associated with global climate alterations.

Many scientists encourage that the migratory nature of the coast should be recognized, and claim it is unwise to assume that structures built upon a moving coastline are immovable.



Bird, E. C. F. Submerging Coasts: The Effects of a Rising Sea Level on Coastal Environments. Chichester, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.

Carter, R. W. G. Coastal Environments: An Introduction to the Physical, Ecological, and Cultural Systems of Coastlines. London; San Diego: Academic Press, 1988.

Carter, R. W. G., and C. D. Woodroffe. Coastal Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Griggs, Gary, and Lauret Savoy, eds. Living with the California Coast. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985.


Geological Society of America (GSA). Beach Nourishment: The Wave of the Future for Erosion Control (Part A). Southeast Section Annual Meeting Abstracts. 2001 [cited October 19, 2002]. <gsa.confex.com/gsa/2001SE/finalprogram/session_ 77.htm>.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Managing Coastal Resources. NOAA's State of the Coast Report, 1998 [cited October 19, 2002]. <http://state-ofcoast.noaa.gov/bulletins/html/crm_13/crm.html>.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Monitoring the Coastal Environment. NOAA's State of the Coast Report. 1998 [cited October 19, 2002]. <http://state-of-coast.noaa.gov/bulletins/html/mcwq_ 12/mcwq.html> (October 18, 2002).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Population at Risk from Natural Hazards. NOAA's State of the Coast Report. 1998 [cited October 19, 2002]. <http://state-of-coast.noaa.gov/bulletins/html/par_02/par.html>.

Otto H. Muller


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Emergent coast

—A coast rising relative to sea level, characterized by exposed terraces consisting of older wave cut cliffs and formerly submerged beaches.

Longshore drift

—Movement of sand parallel to the shore, caused by waves approaching the shore obliquely, slowing and breaking.


—The bending of light that occurs when traveling from one medium to another, such as air to glass or air to water.

Submergent coast

—A coast sinking relative to sea level, characterized by drowned river valleys.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCoast and Beach - Observing Erosion And Deposition, Emergent Coasts, Submergent Coasts, The Sand Budget, Barrier Islands