Coastal Landforms

Where Land Meets Sea: Coastal Landforms

Tourists along the Amalfi coast of Italy thrill to the sound of waves crashing on rocky shores. But in the Virgin Islands sunbathers can find seemingly endless white sand beaches, and along the Mississippi delta, vast swamps border the sea. Large, dome-like mountains rise directly from the sea in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but a 100-m-high vertical cliff marks the boundary between the Nullarbor Plain of southern Australia and the Great Southern Ocean. As these examples illustrate, coasts, the belts of land bordering the sea, vary dramatically in terms of topography and associated landforms. 

Beaches and Tidal Flats 

Characteristics of beach, barrier islands and tidal flats.
For millions of vacationers, the ideal holiday includes a trip to a beach, a gently sloping fringe of sediment along the shore. Some beaches consist of pebbles or boulders, whereas others consist of sand grains (figure above a, b). This is no accident, for waves winnow out finer sediment like silt and clay and carry it to quieter water, where it settles. Storm waves, which can smash cobbles against one another with enough force to shatter them, have little effect on sand, for sand grains can’t collide with enough energy to crack. Thus, cobble beaches exist only where nearby cliffs supply large rock fragments. 
The composition of sand varies from beach to beach because different sands come from different sources. Sands derived from the weathering and erosion of silicic-to- intermediate rocks consist mainly of quartz; other minerals in  these rocks chemically weather to form clay, which washes away  in waves. Beaches made from the erosion of limestone, or of  coral reefs and shells, consist of carbonate sand, including masses of sand-sized chips of shells. And beaches derived from  the erosion of basalt boast black sand, made of tiny basalt grains.
A beach profile, a cross section drawn perpendicular to the shore, illustrates the shape of a beach (figure above c). Starting from the sea and moving landward, a beach consists of a foreshore zone, or intertidal zone, across which the tide rises and falls. The beach face, a steeper, concave-up part of the foreshore zone, forms where the swash of the waves actively scours the sand. The backshore zone extends from a small step, cut by high-tide swash to the front of the dunes or cliffs that lie farther inshore. The backshore zone includes one or more berms, horizontal to landward-sloping terraces that receive sediment only during a storm. 
Geologists commonly refer to beaches as “rivers of sand,” to emphasize that beach sand moves along the coast over time it is not a permanent substrate. Wave action at the shore moves an active sand layer on the sea floor on a daily basis. Inactive sand, buried below this layer, moves only during severe storms or not at all. Longshore drift, discussed earlier, can transport sand hundreds of kilometres along a coast in a matter of centuries. Where the coastline indents landward, beach drift stretches beaches out into open water to create a sand spit. Some sand spits grow across the opening of a bay, to form a baymouth bar (figure above d). 
The scouring action of waves sometimes piles sand up in a narrow ridge away from the shore called an offshore bar, which parallels the shoreline. In regions with an abundant sand supply, offshore bars rise above the mean high-water level and become barrier islands (figure above e), and the water between a barrier island and the mainland becomes a quiet-water lagoon, a body of shallow seawater separated from the open ocean. Though developers have covered some barrier islands with expensive resorts, in the time frame of centuries to millennia, barrier islands are temporary features and may wash away in a storm.
Tidal flats, regions of clay and silt exposed or nearly exposed at low tide but totally submerged at high tide, develop in regions protected from strong wave action (figure above f). They are typically found along the margins of lagoons or on shores protected by barrier islands. Here, sediments accumulate to form thick, sticky layers. 

Rocky Coasts 

Erosion landforms of rocky shorelines.
More than one ship has met its end, smashed and splintered in the spray and thunderous surf of a rocky coast, where bedrock cliffs rise directly from the sea. Lacking the protection of a beach, rocky coasts feel the full impact of ocean breakers. The water pressure generated during the impact of a breaker can pick up boulders and smash them together until they shatter, and it can squeeze air into cracks, creating enough force to push rocks apart. Further, because of its turbulence, the water hitting a cliff face carries suspended sand and thus can abrade the cliff. The combined effects of shattering, wedging, and abrading, together called wave erosion, gradually undercut a cliff face and make a wave-cut notch (figure above a). Undercutting continues until the overhang becomes unstable and breaks away at a joint, creating a pile of rubble at the base of the cliff that waves immediately attack and break up. In this process, wave erosion cuts away at a rocky coast, so that the cliff gradually migrates inland. Such cliff retreat may leave behind a wave-cut bench, or platform, that becomes visible at low tide (figure above b). 
Other processes besides wave erosion break up the rocks along coasts. For example, salt spray coats the cliff face above the waves and infiltrates into pores. When the water evaporates, salt crystals grow and push apart the grains, thereby weakening the rock. Biological processes also contribute to erosion, for plants and animals in the intertidal zone bore into the rocks and gradually break them up. 
Many rocky coasts are irregular with headlands protruding into the sea and embayments set back from the sea. Wave energy focuses on headlands and disperses in embayments, a result of wave refraction. The resulting erosion removes debris at headlands, and sediment accumulates in embayments (figure above c). In some cases, a headland erodes in stages (figure above d). Because of refraction, waves curve and attack the sides of a headland, slowly eating through it to create a sea arch connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge. Eventually the arch collapses, leaving isolated sea stacks just offshore (figure above d). Once formed, a sea stack protects the adjacent shore from waves. Therefore, sand may collect in the lee of the stack, slowly building a tombolo, a narrow ridge of sand that links the sea stack to the mainland.


The Chesapeake Bay estuary formed when the sea flooded river valleys. The region is sinking relative to other coast areas because it overlies a buried meteor crater.
Along some coastlines, a relative rise in sea level causes the sea to flood river valleys that merge with the coast, resulting in estuaries, where seawater and river water mix. You can recognize an estuary on a map by the dendritic pattern of its river-carved coastline (figure above). Oceanic and fluvial waters interact in two ways within an estuary. In quiet estuaries, protected from wave action or river turbulence, the water becomes stratified, with denser oceanic salt water flowing upstream as a wedge beneath less-dense fluvial freshwater.  In turbulent estuaries, oceanic and fluvial water combine to create nutrient-rich brackish water with a salinity between that of oceans and rivers. Estuaries are complex ecosystems inhabited by unique species of shrimp, clams, oysters, worms, and fish that can tolerate large changes in salinity.


Fjord landscapes form where relative sea-level rise drowns glacially carved valleys.
During the last ice age, glaciers carved deep valleys in coastal mountain ranges. When the ice age came to a close, the glaciers melted away, leaving deep, U-shaped valleys. The water stored in the glaciers, along with the water within the vast ice sheets that covered continents during the ice age, flowed back into the sea and caused sea level to rise. The rising sea filled the deep valleys, creating fjords, or flooded glacial valleys. Coastal fjords are fingers of the sea surrounded by mountains; because of their deep-blue water and steep walls of polished rock, they are distinctively beautiful (figure above).

Coastal Wetlands 

Examples of coastal wetlands.
A flat-lying coastal area that floods during high tide and drains during low tide, but does not get pummeled by intense waves, can host salt-resistant plants and evolve into a coastal wetland. Wetland-dominated shorelines are sometimes called “organic coasts.” Researchers distinguish among different types of coastal wetlands based on the plants they host. Examples include swamps (dominated by trees), marshes (dominated by grasses; figure above a), and bogs (dominated by moss and shrubs). So many marine species spawn in wetlands that as a whole, wetlands account for 10% to 30% of marine organic productivity. 
In tropical or semitropical climates (between 30 north and 30 south of the equator), mangrove trees may become the dominant plant in swamps (figure above b). Some mangrove species form a broad network of roots above the water surface, making the plant look like an octopus standing on its tentacles, and some send up small protrusions from roots that rise above the water and allow the plant to breathe. Dense mangrove swamps counter the effects of stormy weather and thus prevent coastal erosion.

Coral Reefs 

The character and evolution of coral reefs.
Along the azure coasts of Hawaii, visitors swim through colorful growths of living coral. Some corals look like brains, others like elk antlers, still others like delicate fans (figure above a). Sea anemones, sponges, and clams grow on and around the coral. Though at first glance coral looks like a plant, it is actually a colony of tiny invertebrates related to jellyfish. An individual coral animal, or polyp, has a tubelike body with a head of tentacles. 
Coral polyps secrete calcite shells, which gradually build into a mound of solid limestone whose top surface lies from just below the low-tide level down to a depth of about 60 m. At any given time, only the surface of the mound lives the mound’s interior consists of shells from previous generations of coral. The realm of shallow water underlain by coral mounds, associated organisms, and debris comprises a coral reef. Reefs absorb wave energy and thus serve as a living buffer zone that protects coasts from erosion. Corals need clear, well-lit, warm (18–30C) water with normal oceanic salinity, so coral reefs grow only along clean coasts at latitudes of less than about 30 (figure above b). 
Marine geologists distinguish three different kinds of coral reef, on the basis of their geometry (figure above c). A fringing reef forms directly along the coast, a barrier reef develops offshore, and an atoll makes a circular ring surrounding a lagoon. As Charles Darwin first recognized back in 1859, coral reefs associated with islands in the Pacific start out as fringing reefs and then later become barrier reefs and finally atolls. This progression reflects the continued growth of the reef as the island around which it formed gradually sinks. Eventually, the reef itself sinks too far below sea level to remain alive and becomes the cap of a flat-topped seamount known as a guyot.

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