8 Oceans and Coastal Environments

8.1 Significance of the Oceans

The oceans make up 70 percent of the planet and contain 97 percent of all the water on Earth. It also makes up the vast majority of water stores the majority of the planet’s moisture, terrestrial energy, and heat from the Sun. This energy is transferred between the equator and the two poles by larger surface currents by winds and deep ocean currents driven by differences in ocean density. It also provides the moisture and energy for storm systems and ultimately global climates.

Phytoplankton, microscopic plants, and animals in the oceans provide the foundation of the global food web of species. The earth’s oceans are so vital for life that over 40 percent of the world’s population live near coastal areas.

Blue Marble composite images generated by NASA in 2001 and 2002.


As terrestrial creatures, humans think of the importance of the planet’s land surfaces, yet Earth is a planet consisting of 70 percent water. From space, the dominance of water is evident because most of it is stored in Earth’s oceans.

Earth would not be the same planet without its oceans. The oceans, along with the atmosphere, keep Earth’s surface temperatures fairly constant worldwide. Some places on Earth reach as cold as -7 degrees Celsius, whereas other places reach as hot as 55 degrees Celsius. On other planets like Mercury, temperatures range from -180 degrees Celsius to 430 degrees Celsius.

The oceans, along with the atmosphere, distribute heat around the planet. The oceans absorb heat near the equator and then transport that solar energy to polar regions. The oceans also moderate climate within a region. At the same latitude, the temperature range is smaller along coastal areas compared to areas farther inland. Along coastal areas, summer temperatures are not as hot, and winter temperatures are not as cold, because water takes a long time to heat up or cool down.


This is the coral reef an Havelock in Andaman.

The oceans are an essential part of Earth’s water cycle. Since they cover so much of the planet, most evaporation comes from the ocean, and most precipitation falls on the oceans.

The oceans are also home to an enormous amount of life. That is, they have tremendous biodiversity. Tiny ocean plants create the base of a food web that supports all sorts of life forms. Marine life makes up the majority of all biomass on Earth. Biomass is the total mass of living organisms in a given area. These organisms supply us with food and even the oxygen created by marine plants.


Bathymetric map of the Hawaiian Islands.

Recall from the chapter on Plate Tectonics that the ocean floor is not flat. Mid-ocean ridges, deep-sea trenches, and other features all rise sharply above or plunge deeply below the abyssal plains. Earth’s tallest mountain is Mauna Kea volcano, which rises 10,203 m (33,476 ft.) from the Pacific Ocean floor to become one of the volcanic mountains of Hawaii. The deepest canyon is also on the ocean floor, the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, 10,916 m (35,814 ft). The mapping of the ocean floor and coastal margins is called bathymetry.

The continental margin is the transition from the land to the deep sea or, geologically speaking, from continental crust to oceanic crust. More than one-quarter of the ocean basin is continental margin.


Composition of ocean water.

The ocean’s water is a complex system of organic and inorganic substances Water is a polar molecule so it can dissolve many substances such as salts, sugars, acids, bases, and organic molecules. Where does the salt in seawater come from? As water moves through rock and soil on land it picks up ions. This is the flip side of weathering. Salts comprise about 3.5 percent of the mass of ocean water, but the salt content or salinity is different in different locations.

In places like estuaries, seawater mixes with fresh water, causing salinity to be much lower than average. Where there is lots of evaporation but little circulation of water, salinity can be much higher. The Dead Sea has 30 percent salinity – nearly nine times the average salinity of ocean water. It is called the Dead Sea because nearly nothing can survive within it because of its salinity. Earthquide has an interactive ocean maps, which can show salinity, temperature, nutrients, and other characteristics.

Differences in water density are responsible for deep ocean currents. With so many dissolved substances mixed in seawater, what is the density (mass per volume) of seawater relative to fresh water? Water density increases as: salinity increases; temperature decreases; pressure increases.

8.2 Layers of the Ocean

In 1960, two scientists in a specially designed submarine called the Trieste descended into a submarine trench called the Challenger Deep (10,910 meters). The average depth of the ocean is 3,790 m, a lot more shallow than the deep trenches but still an incredible depth for sea creatures to live in. Three significant factors make the deep ocean hard to inhabit: the absence of light, low temperature, and extremely high pressure. The National Weather Service as information on the layers of the ocean.


Typical seawater temperature profile (red line) with increasing depth.

To better understand regions of the ocean, scientists define the water column by depth. They divide the entire ocean into two zones vertically, based on light level. Large lakes are divided into similar regions. Sunlight only penetrates the sea surface to a depth of about 200 m, creating the photic zone (consisting of the Sunlight Zone and Twilight Zone). Organisms that photosynthesize depend on sunlight for food and so are restricted to the photic zone. Since tiny photosynthetic organisms, known as phytoplankton, supply nearly all of the energy and nutrients to the rest of the marine food web, most other marine organisms live in or at least visit the photic zone. In the aphotic zone (consisting of the Midnight Zone and the Abyss) there is not enough light for photosynthesis. The aphotic zone makes up the majority of the ocean, but has a relatively small amount of its life, both in the diversity of type and in numbers.


The seabed is also divided into the zones described above, but the ocean itself is also divided horizontally by distance from the shore. Nearest to the shore lies the intertidal zone, the region between the high and low tidal marks. This hallmark of the intertidal is changed, where water is in constant motions from ocean waves, tides, and currents. The land is sometimes under water and sometimes is exposed. The neritic zone is from low tide mark and slopes gradually downward to the edge of the seaward side of the continental shelf. Some sunlight penetrates to the seabed here. The oceanic zone is the entire rest of the ocean from the bottom edge of the neritic zone, where sunlight does not reach the bottom.

8.3 Waves

Waves form on the ocean and lakes because energy from the wind is transferred to the water. The stronger the wind, the longer it blows, and the larger the area of water over which it blows (the fetch), the larger the waves are likely to be.

The essential parameters of a wave are its wavelength (the horizontal distance between two crests or two troughs), its amplitude (the vertical distance between a trough and a crest), and its velocity (the speed at which wave crests move across the water).imageRelatively small waves move at up to about 10 km/h and arrive on a shore about once every 3 seconds. Huge waves move about five times faster (over 50 km/h), but because their wavelengths are so much longer, they arrive less frequently – about once every 14 seconds.

As a wave moves across the surface of the water, the water itself mostly moves up and down and only moves a small amount in the direction of wave motion. As this happens, a point on the water surface describes a circle with a diameter that is equal to the wave amplitude. This motion is also transmitted to the water underneath, and the water is disturbed by a wave to a depth of approximately one-half of the wavelength.

The one-half wavelength depth of disturbance of the water beneath a wave is known as the wave base. Since ocean waves rarely have wavelengths greater than 200 m, and the open ocean is several thousand meters deep, the wave base does not frequently interact with the bottom of the ocean. However, as waves approach the much shallower water near the shore, they start to “feel” the bottom, and they are affected by that interaction. The wave “orbits” are both flattened and slowed by dragging, and the implications are that the wave amplitude (height) increases and the wavelength decreases (the waves become much steeper). The ultimate result of this is that the waves lean forward, and eventually break.

Waves usually approach the shore at an angle, and this means that one part of the wave feels the bottom sooner than the rest of it, so the part that feels the bottom first slows down first. In open water, these waves had wavelengths close to 100 m. In the shallow water closer to shore, the wavelengths decreased to around 50 m, and in some cases, even less.

Even though they bend and become nearly parallel to shore, most waves still reach the shore at a small angle, and as each one arrives, it pushes water along the shore, creating what is known as a longshore current within the surf zone (the areas where waves are breaking).

Another significant effect of waves reaching the shore at an angle is that when they wash up onto the beach, they do so at an angle, but when that same wave water washes back down the beach, it moves straight down the slope of the beach. The upward-moving water, known as the swash, pushes sediment particles along the beach, while the downward-moving water, the backwash, brings them straight back. With every wave that washes up and then down the beach, particles of sediment are moved along the beach in a zigzag pattern.

The combined effects of sediment transport within the surf zone by the longshore current and sediment movement along the beach by swash and backwash is known as longshore drift. Longshore drift moves a tremendous amount of sediment along coasts (both oceans and large lakes) around the world, and it is responsible for creating a variety of depositional features.

A rip current is another type of current that develops in the nearshore area and has the effect of returning water that has been pushed up to the shore by incoming waves. Rip currents flow straight out from the shore and are fed by the longshore currents. They die out quickly just outside the surf zone, but can be dangerous to swimmers who get caught in them. If part of a beach does not have a strong unidirectional longshore current, the rip currents may be fed by longshore currents going in both directions.


On the open sea, waves generally appear choppy because wave trains from many directions are interacting with each other. Where crests converge with other crests, called constructive interference, they add together producing peaks, a process referred to as wave amplification. Constructive interference of troughs produces hollows. Where crests converge with troughs, they cancel each other out, called destructive interference. As waves approach shore and begin to make frictional contact with the seafloor (i.e., water depth is a half wavelength or less) they begin to slow down, but the energy carried by the wave remains the same, so they build up higher. The water moves in a circular motion as the wave passes, with the water that feeds each circle being drawn from the trough in front of the advancing wave. As the wave encounters shallower water at the shore, there is eventually insufficient water in front of the wave to supply a complete circle, and the crest pours over creating a breaker.

Some of the damage done by storms is from storm surges. Water piles up at a shoreline as storm winds push waves into the coast. Storm surge may raise sea level as much as 7.5 m (25 ft), which can be devastating in a shallow land area when winds, waves, and rain are intense.


A particular type of wave is generated by any energetic event affecting the sea floor, such as earthquakes, submarine landslides, and volcanic eruptions. Such waves are called tsunamis and, in the case of earthquakes, are created when a portion of the seafloor is suddenly elevated by movement in the crustal rocks below that are involved in the earthquake. The water is suddenly lifted, and a wave train spreads out in all directions from the mound carrying enormous energy and traveling very fast (hundreds of miles per hour).

Tsunamis may pass unnoticed in the open ocean because the wavelength is very long and the wave height is shallow. However, as the wave train approaches the shore, each wave makes contact with the shallow seafloor, friction increases, and the wave slows down. Wave height builds up, and the wave strikes the shore as a wall of water a hundred or more feet high. The massive wave may sweep inland well beyond the beach. This is called the tsunami run-up, which destroys structures far inland. Tsunamis deliver a catastrophic blow to observers at the beach as the water in the trough in front of it is drawn back toward the tsunami wave, exposing the seafloor. Curious and unsuspecting people on the beach may run out to see exposed offshore sea life only to be overwhelmed when the breaking crest hits.

8.4 Tidal Waves

Tides are the daily rise and fall of sea level at any given place. The pull of the Moon’s gravity on Earth is the primary cause of tides, and the pull of the Sun’s gravity on Earth is the secondary cause. The Moon has a more significant effect because, although it is much smaller than the Sun, it is much closer. The Moon’s pull is about twice that of the Sun’s.


To understand the tides it is easiest to start with the effect of the Moon on Earth. As the Moon revolves around our planet, its gravity pulls Earth toward it. The lithosphere is unable to move much but the gravity pulls the water above it, and a bulge is created. This bulge is the high tide beneath the Moon. The Moon’s gravity then pulls the Earth toward it, leaving the water on the opposite side of the planet behind. This creates a second high tide bulge on the opposite side of Earth from the Moon. These two water bulges on opposite sides of the Earth aligned with the Moon are the high tides.

Since so much water is pulled into the two high tides, low tides form between the two high tides. As the Earth rotates beneath the Moon, a single spot will experience two high tides and two low tides every day.

The tidal range is the difference between the ocean level at high tide and the ocean at low tide. The tidal range in a location depends on some factors, including the slope of the seafloor. Water appears to move a greater distance on a gentle slope than on a steep slope.


Waves are additive, so when the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon are in the same direction, the high tides add and the low tides add. In other words, high tides are higher and low tides are lower than at other times throughout the month. These more extreme tides, with a greater tidal range, are called spring tides. Spring tides do not just occur in the spring; they occur whenever the Moon is in a new-moon or full-moon phase, about every 14 days.

Neap tides are tides that have the smallest tidal range, and they occur when the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun form a 90-degree angle. They occur precisely halfway between the spring tides when the Moon is at first or last quarter. How do the tides add up to create neap tides? The Moon’s high tide occurs in the same place as the Sun’s low tide and the Moon’s low tide in the same place as the Sun’s high tide. At neap tides, the tidal range relatively small.

High tides occur about twice a day, about every 12 hours and 25 minutes. The reason is that the Moon takes 24 hours and 50 minutes to rotate once around the Earth so the Moon is over the same location 24 hours and 50 minutes later. Since high tides occur twice a day, one arrives every 12 hours and 25 minutes. What is the time between high tide and the next low tide? This animation shows the effect of the Moon and Sun on the tides.

Some coastal areas do not follow this pattern at all. These coastal areas may have one high and one low tide per day or a different amount of time between two high tides. These differences are often because of local conditions, such as the shape of the coastline that the tide is entering.

The National Ocean Service has a wealth of information on tides and water levels.

8.5 Surface Currents

Ocean water moves in predictable ways along the ocean surface. Surface currents can flow for thousands of kilometers and can reach depths of hundreds of meters. These surface currents do not depend on the weather; they remain unchanged even in large storms because they depend on factors that do not change.

Esri story map on what causes the world’s ocean currents.

Surface currents are created by three things: global wind patterns, the rotation of the earth, and the shape of the ocean basins. Surface currents are extremely important because they distribute heat around the planet and are a significant factor influencing climate around the globe.  Esri has an excellent story map on what causes ocean currents around the world.


Winds on Earth are either global or local. Global winds blow in the same directions all the time and are related to the unequal heating of Earth by the Sun, that is that more solar radiation strikes the equator than the polar regions, and the rotation of the Earth called the Coriolis effect. The causes of the global wind patterns will be described in detail later when we look at the atmosphere. Water in the surface currents is pushed in the direction of the significant wind belts:

  • Trade winds are consistent winds that flow east to west between the equator and 30 degrees North and 30 degrees South
  • Westerlies are winds that flow west to east in the middle latitudes
  • Polar easterlies are winds that flow east to to west between 50 degrees and 60 degrees north and south of the equator and the north and south pole


Wind is not the only factor that affects ocean currents. The Coriolis effect describes how Earth’s rotation steers winds and surface ocean currents. The Coriolis effect causes freely moving objects to appear to move to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. The objects themselves are moving straight, but the Earth is rotating beneath them, so they seem to bend or curve.

An example might make the Coriolis effect easier to visualize. If an airplane flies 500 miles due north, it will not arrive at the city that was due north of it when it began its journey. Over the time it takes for the airplane to fly 500 miles, that city moved, along with the Earth it sits on. The airplane will, therefore, arrive at a city to the west of the original city (in the Northern Hemisphere) unless the pilot has compensated for the change. So to reach his intended destination, the pilot must also veer right while flying north.

As wind or an ocean current moves, the Earth spins underneath it. As a result, an object moving north or south along the Earth will appear to move in a curve, instead of in a straight line. Wind or water that travels toward the poles from the equator is deflected to the east, while wind or water that travels toward the equator from the poles gets bent to the west. The Coriolis effect bends the direction of surface currents to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and left in the Southern Hemisphere.

8.6 Deep Currents

Map of the world showing the global thermohaline circulation.

Thermohaline circulation drives deep ocean circulation. Thermo means heat and haline refers to salinity. Differences in temperature and salinity change the density of seawater. So thermohaline circulation is the result of density differences in water masses because of their different temperature and salinity.

What is the temperature and salinity of very dense water? Lower temperature and higher salinity yield the densest water. When a volume of water is cooled, the molecules move less vigorously, so the same number of molecules takes up less space, and the water is denser. If salt is added to a volume of water, there are more molecules in the same volume, so the water is denser.

Changes in temperature and salinity of seawater take place at the surface. Water becomes dense near the poles. Cold polar air cools the water and lowers its temperature, increasing its salinity. Fresh water freezes out of seawater to become sea ice, which also increases the salinity of the remaining water. This frigid, very saline water is very dense and sinks, a process called downwelling.

Two things then happen. The dense water pushes deeper water out of its way, and that water moves along the bottom of the ocean. This deep water mixes with less dense water as it flows. Surface currents move water into the space vacated at the surface where the dense water sank. Water also sinks into the deep ocean off of Antarctica. Since unlimited amounts of water cannot sink to the bottom of the ocean, water must rise from the deep ocean to the surface somewhere. This process is called upwelling.

Generally, upwelling occurs along the coast when the wind blows water strongly away from the shore. This leaves a void that is filled with deep water that rises to the surface. Upwelling is extremely important where it occurs. During its time on the bottom, the cold deep water has collected nutrients that have fallen through the water column. Upwelling brings those nutrients to the surface. That nutrient supports the growth of plankton and forms the base of a vibrant ecosystem. California, South America, South Africa, and the Arabian Sea all benefit from offshore upwelling.

Upwelling also takes place along the equator between the North and South Equatorial Currents. Winds blow the surface water north and south of the equator so deep water undergoes upwelling. The nutrients rise to the surface and support a great deal of life in the equatorial oceans.

Esri story map on how the world’s ocean currents impact the earth.

Esri has another story map on how ocean currents impact the world.

8.7 Topology of the Sea Floor

Oceans cover 71 percent of Earth’s surface and hold 97 percent of Earth’s water. The water they contain is critical to plate tectonics, to volcanism, and of course, to life on Earth. It is said that we know more about the surface of the Moon than the floor of the oceans. Whether this is true or not, the critical point is that the ocean floor is covered with an average of nearly 4,000 m of water, and it is pitch black below a few hundred meters, so it is not easy to discover what is down there. We know a lot more about the oceans than we used to, but there is still a great deal more to discover.

Earth has had oceans for a very long time, dating back to the point where the surface had cooled enough to allow liquid water, only a few hundred million years after Earth’s formation. At that time there were no continental rocks, so the water that was here was likely spread out over the surface in one giant (but relatively shallow) ocean.

We examined the topography of the sea floor from the perspective of plate tectonics, but here we are going to take another look at the essential features from an oceanographic perspective. The topography of the northern Atlantic Ocean is shown below. The essential features are the extensive continental shelves less than 250 m deep (pink); the vast deep ocean plains between 4,000 and 6,000 m deep (light and dark blue); the mid-Atlantic ridge, in many areas shallower than 3,000 m; and the deep ocean trench north of Puerto Rico (8,600 m).

The topography of the Atlantic Ocean sea floor between 0° and 50° north. Red and yellow colours indicate less than 2,000 m depth; green less than 3,000 m; blue 4,000 m to 5,000 m; and purple greater than 6,000 m. Image source: NASA

A topographic profile of the Pacific Ocean floor between Japan and British Columbia is shown in Figure 18.3. Be careful when interpreting this diagram (and others like it), because in order to show the various features the vertical axis is exaggerated, in this case by about 200 times. The floor of the Pacific, like those of the other oceans, is very flat, even in areas with seamounts or deep trenches. The vast sediment-covered abyssal plains of the oceans are much flatter than any similar-sized areas on the continents.

The main features of the Pacific Ocean floor are the continental slopes, which drop from about 200 m to several thousand meters over a distance of a few hundred kilometers; the abyssal plains – exceedingly flat and from 4,000 m to 6,000 m deep; volcanic seamounts and islands; and trenches at subduction zones that are up to 11,000 m deep.

The generalized topography of the Pacific Ocean sea floor between Japan and British Columbia. The vertical exaggeration is approximately 200 times.

The ocean floor is almost entirely underlain by mafic oceanic crust, while the continental slopes are underlain by felsic continental crust (mostly granitic and sedimentary rocks). Moreover, the denser oceanic crust floats lower on the mantle than continental crust does, and that is why oceans are oceans.

Although the temperature of the ocean surface varies widely, from a few degrees either side of freezing in polar regions to over 25°C in the tropics, in most parts of the ocean, the water temperature is around 10°C at 1,000 m depth and about 4°C from 2,000 m depth all the way to the bottom.

The generalized topography of the Pacific Ocean floor in the area of the Marianas Trench, near Guam. The dashed grey line represents the subduction of the Pacific Plate (to the right) beneath the Philippine Plate (to the left).

The deepest parts of the ocean are within the subduction trenches, and the deepest of these is the Marianas Trench in the southwestern Pacific (near Guam) at 11,000 m. Other trenches in the southwestern Pacific are over 10,000 m deep; the Japan Trench is over 9,000 m deep, and the Puerto Rico and Chile-Peru Trenches are over 8,000 m deep. Trenches that are relatively shallow tend to be that way because they have significant sediment infill. There is no recognizable trench along the subduction zone of the Juan de Fuca Plate because it has been filled with sediments from the Fraser and Columbia Rivers (or their ancient equivalents).

8.8 Landforms of Coastal Erosion

Large waves crashing onto a shore bring a tremendous amount of energy that has a significant eroding effect, and several unique erosion features commonly form on rocky shores with strong waves.

When waves approach an irregular shore, they are slowed down to varying degrees, depending on differences in the water depth, and as they slow, they are bent or refracted. That energy is evenly spaced out in the deep water, but because of refraction, the energy of the waves, which moves perpendicular to the wave crests, is being focused on the headlands. On irregular coasts, the headlands receive much more wave energy than the intervening bays, and thus they are more strongly eroded. The result of this is coastal straightening. An irregular coast, like the west coast of Vancouver Island, will eventually become straightened, although that process will take millions of years.

The approach of waves (white lines) in the Cox Bay area of Long Beach, Vancouver Island. The red arrows represent wave energy; most of that energy is focused on the headlands of Frank Island and Cox Point.

Wave erosion is greatest in the surf zone, where the wave base is impinging strongly on the sea floor and where the waves are breaking. The result is that the substrate in the surf zone is typically eroded to a flat surface known as a wave-cut platform, or wave-cut terrace. A wave-cut platform extends across the intertidal zone.

Relatively resistant rock that does not get completely eroded during the formation of a wave-cut platform will remain behind to form a stack. Here the different layers of the sedimentary rock have different resistance to erosion. The upper part of this stack is made up of rock that resisted erosion, and that rock has protected a small pedestal of underlying softer rock. The softer rock will eventually be eroded, and the big rock will become just another boulder on the beach.

Basalt sea stack in a black lava beach under the mountain in southern Iceland.

Arches and sea caves are related to stacks because they all form as a result of the erosion of relatively non-resistant rock.

Basalt sea cave on Akun Island.


Submarine canyons are narrow and deep canyons located in the marine environment on continental shelves. They typically form at the mouths of sizeable landward river systems, both by cutting down into the continental shelf during times of low sea level and also by continual material slumping or flowing down from the mouth of the river or a delta. Underwater currents rich in sediment pass through the canyons, erode them and drain onto the ocean floor. Steep delta faces and underwater flows of sediments are released down the continental slope as underwater landslides, called turbidity flows. Erosive action of this type of flow continues to cut the canyon, and eventually, fan-shaped deposits develop on the ocean floor beyond the continental slope.

8.9 Landforms of Coastal Deposition

Some coastal areas are dominated by erosion, an example being the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States, while others are dominated by deposition, examples being the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of the United States. However, on almost all coasts, both deposition and erosion are happening to varying degrees most of the time, although in different places. On deposition-dominant coasts, the coastal sediments are still being eroded from some areas and deposited in others.

The main factor in determining if the coast is dominated by erosion or deposition is its history of tectonic activity. A coast like that of British Columbia is tectonically active, and compression and uplift have been going on for tens of millions of years. This coast has also been uplifted during the past 15,000 years by isostatic rebound due to deglaciation. The coasts of the United States along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico have not seen significant tectonic activity in a few hundred million years, and except in the northeast, have not experienced post-glacial uplift. These areas have relatively little topographic relief, and there is now minimal erosion of coastal bedrock.

On coasts that are dominated by depositional processes, most of the sediment being deposited typically comes from large rivers. An obvious example is where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans; another is the Fraser River at Vancouver. No large rivers are bringing sandy sediments to the west coast of Vancouver Island, but there are still long and wide sandy beaches there. In this area, most of the sand comes from glaciofluvial sand deposits situated along the shore behind the beach, and some come from the erosion of the rocks on the headlands.

On a sandy marine beach, the beach face is the area between the low and high tide levels. A berm is a flatter region beyond the reach of high tides; this area stays dry except during large storms.

The differences between summer and winter on beaches in areas where the winter conditions are rougher and waves have a shorter wavelength but higher energy. In winter, sand from the beach is stored offshore.

Most beaches go through a seasonal cycle because conditions change from summer to winter. In summer, sea conditions are relatively calm with long-wavelength, low-amplitude waves generated by distant winds. Winter conditions are rougher, with shorter-wavelength, higher-amplitude waves caused by strong local winds. The heavy seas of winter gradually erode sand from beaches, moving it to an underwater sandbar offshore from the beach. The gentler waves of summer gradually push this sand back toward the shore, creating a broader and flatter beach.

The formation of Goose Spit at Comox on Vancouver Island. The sand that makes up Goose Spit is derived from the erosion of Pleistocene Quadra Sand (a thick glaciofluvial sand deposit, as illustrated in the photo on the right).

The evolution of sandy depositional features on sea coasts is primarily influenced by waves and currents, especially longshore currents. As sediment is transported along a shore, either it is deposited on beaches, or it creates other depositional features. A spit, for example, is an elongated sandy deposit that extends out into open water in the direction of a longshore current.

A depiction of a baymouth bar and a tombolo.

A spit that extends across a bay to the extent of closing, or almost closing it off, is known as a baymouth bar. Most bays have streams flowing into them, and since this water has to get out, it is rare that a baymouth bar will completely close the entrance to a bay. In areas where there is sufficient sediment being transported, and there are near-shore islands, a tombolo may form.

The process of formation of a tombolo in a wave shadow behind a nearshore island.
A stack (with a wave-cut platform) connected to the mainland by a tombolo, Leboeuf Bay, Gabriola Island, B.C.

Tombolos are common around the southern part of the coast of British Columbia, where islands are abundant, and they typically form where there is a wave shadow behind a nearshore island. This becomes an area with reduced energy, and so the longshore current slows and sediments accumulate. Eventually, enough sediments accumulate to connect the island to the mainland with a tombolo.

In areas where coastal sediments are abundant and coastal relief is low (because there has been little or no recent coastal uplift), it is common for barrier islands to form. Barrier islands are elongated islands composed of sand that form a few kilometers away from the mainland. They are common along the U.S. Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, and along the U.S. Atlantic Coast from Florida to Massachusetts. North of Boston, the coast becomes rocky, partly because that area has been affected by a post-glacial crustal rebound.

Some coasts in tropical regions (between 30° S and 30° N) are characterized by carbonate reefs. Reefs form in relatively shallow marine water within a few hundred to a few thousand meters of shore in areas where there is little or no input of clastic sediments from streams, and marine organisms such as corals, algae, and shelled organisms can thrive.  The associated biological processes are enhanced where upwelling currents bring chemical nutrients from deeper water (but not so deep that the water is cooler than about 25°C). Sediments that form in the back reef (shore side) and fore reef (ocean side) are typically dominated by carbonate fragments eroded from the reef and from organisms that thrive in the back-reef area that is protected from wave energy by the reef.

8.10 Sea-Level Change

Sea-level change has been a feature on Earth for billions of years, and it has important implications for coastal processes and both erosional and depositional features. There are three primary mechanisms of sea-level change, as described below.

Eustatic sea-level changes are global sea-level changes related either to changes in the volume of glacial ice on land or to changes in the shape of the sea floor caused by plate tectonic processes. For example, changes in the rate of mid-ocean spreading will change the shape of the sea floor near the ridges, and this affects sea level.

Over the past 20,000 years, there have been approximately 125 m of eustatic sea-level rise due to glacial melting. Most of that took place between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago during the significant melting phase of the North American and Eurasian Ice Sheets. At around 7,500 years ago, the rate of glacial melting and sea-level rise decreased dramatically, and since that time, the average rate has been in the order of 0.7 mm/year. Anthropogenic climate change led to accelerating sea-level rise starting around 1870. Since that time, the average rate has been 1.1 mm/year, but it has been gradually increasing. Since 1992, the average rate has been 3.2 mm/year.

Isostatic sea-level changes are local changes caused by subsidence or uplift of the crust related either to changes in the amount of ice on the land or to growth or erosion of mountains.

Almost all of Canada and parts of the northern United States were covered in thick ice sheets at the peak of the last glaciation. Following the melting of this ice, there has been an isostatic rebound of continental crust in many areas. This ranges from several hundred meters of rebound in the central part of the Laurentide Ice Sheet (around Hudson Bay) to 100 m to 200 m in the peripheral parts of the Laurentide and Cordilleran Ice Sheets — in places such as Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of B.C. In other words, although global sea level was about 130 m lower during the last glaciation, the glaciated regions were depressed at least that much in most places, and more than that in places where the ice was thickest.

Tectonic sea-level changes are local changes caused by tectonic processes. The subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate beneath British Columbia is creating tectonic uplift (about 1 mm/year) along the western edge of Vancouver Island, although much of this uplift is likely to be reversed when the next sizeable subduction-zone earthquake strikes.

Estuaries and fiords commonly characterize coastlines in areas where there has been a net sea-level rise in the geologically recent past. This valley was filled with ice during the last glaciation, and there has been a net rise in sea level here since that time. Coastlines in areas where there has been a net sea-level drop in the geologically recent past are characterized by uplifted wave-cut platforms or stream valleys. Uplifted beach lines are another product of relative sea-level drop, although these are difficult to recognize in areas with vigorous vegetation.


Coastlines that have a relative fall in sea level, either caused by tectonics or sea level change, are called emergent. Where the shoreline is rocky, perhaps with a sea cliff, waves refracting around headlands attack the rocks behind the point of the headland.

They may cut out the rock at the base forming a sea arch which may collapse to isolate the point as a stack. Rocks behind the stack may be eroded, and sand eroded from the point collects behind it forming a tombolo, a sand strip that connects the stack to the shoreline. Where sand supply is low, wave energy may erode a wave cut platform across the surf zone, exposed as bare rock with tidal pools at low tide. Wave energy expended at the base of a sea cliff may cut a wave notch.

Sea cliffs tend to be persistent features as the waves cut away at their base and higher rocks calve off by mass wasting. If the coast is emergent, these erosional features may be elevated relative to the wave zone. Wave-cut platforms become marine terraces, perhaps with remnant sea cliffs inland from them.

Tectonic subsidence or sea level rise produces a submergent coast. Features associated with submergent coasts include estuaries, bays and river mouths flooded by the higher water. Fjords are ancient glacial valleys now flooded by post Ice Age sea level rise. Elongated bodies of sand called barrier islands form parallel to the shoreline from the old beach sands, often isolated from the mainland by lagoons behind them. The formation of barrier islands is controversial; some workers believe as above that barrier islands were formed by rising sea level as the ice sheets melted after the last ice age. Accumulation of spits and far offshore bar formations are also mentioned as possible formation hypotheses for barrier islands.

Tidal flats or mudflats form where tides alternately flood and expose low areas along the coast. Combinations of symmetrical ripple marks, asymmetrical ripple marks from tidal currents, and mud cracks from drying form on these tidal flats. An example of ancient tidal flat deposits is exposed in the Precambrian strata found in the central part of the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. These ancient deposits provide an example of applying Hutton’s Uniformity Principle. The presence of features common on modern tidal flats prompts the interpretation that these ancient deposits were formed in a similar environment. There were shorelines, tides, and shoreline processes acting at that time, yet the age of the ancient rocks indicates that there were no land plants to hold products of mechanical weathering in place so rates of erosion would have been different.  The Uniformity Principle must be applied with some knowledge of the context of the application.

Typically tidal flats are broken into three different sections, which may be abundant or absent in each tidal flat. Barren zones are areas with strong, flowing water and coarser sediment, with ripples and cross bedding common. Marshes are vegetated with natural sand and mud. Salt pans are the finest-grained parts of the tidal flats, with silty sediment, mud cracks, and is less often submerged.

Lagoons are locations where spits, barrier islands, or other features have partially cut off a body of water from the ocean. Estuaries are a (typically vegetated) type of lagoon where fresh water is flowing into the area as well, making the water brackish (between salt and fresh water). However, terms like a lagoon, estuary, and even bay are often loosely used in place of one another. Lagoons and estuaries are indeed transitional between terrestrial and marine geologic environment, where littoral, lacustrine, and fluvial processes can overlap.

8.11 Human Interference with Shorelines

There are various modifications that we make in an attempt to influence beach processes for our purposes. Sometimes these changes are effective and may appear to be beneficial, although in most cases there are unintended negative consequences that we do not recognize until much later.

Seawalls help to limit erosion and can be enjoyable amenities for the public, but they have geological and ecological costs. When a shoreline is “hardened” in this way, crucial marine habitat is lost, and sediment production is reduced, and that can affect beaches elsewhere. Seawalls also affect the behavior of waves and longshore currents, sometimes with negative results.

Groynes (or groins in the U.S.) have an effect that is similar to that of breakwaters, although groynes are constructed perpendicular to the beach, and they trap sediment by slowing the longshore current.

Most of the sediment that forms beaches along our coasts comes from rivers, so if we want to take care of the beaches, we have to take care of rivers. When a river is dammed, its sediment load is deposited in the resulting reservoir, and for the century or two, while the reservoir is filling up, that sediment cannot get to the sea. During that time, beaches (including spits, baymouth bars, and tombolos) within tens of kilometers of the river’s mouth (or more in some cases) are at risk of erosion.

Coasts are prime real estate land that attracts the development of beach houses, condominiums, and hotels. This kind of interest and investment leads to ongoing efforts to manage the natural processes in coastal areas. Humans who find longshore drift is removing sand from their beaches often use groins (also spelled groyne) in an attempt to retain it.

Similar but smaller than jetties, groins are bits of wood or concrete built across the beach perpendicular to the shoreline at the downstream end of one’s property. Unlike jetties, they are used to preserve sand on a beach, rather than to divert it from an area. Sand erodes on the downstream side of the groin and collects against the upstream side. Every groin thus creates a need for another one downstream. The series of groins along a beach develops a scalloped appearance for the shoreline.

Sand for longshore drift and beaches comes from rivers flowing to the oceans from inland areas. Beaches may become starved of sand if sediment carried by streams and rivers is trapped behind dams. To mitigate, beach replenishment may be employed where sand is hauled in from other areas by trucks or barges and dumped on the depleted beach. Unfortunately, this can disrupt the ecosystem that exists along the shoreline by exposing native creatures to foreign sandy material and foreign microorganisms and can even bring in foreign objects that impact humans on replenished beaches. Visitors to one replenished east coast beach found munitions and metal shards in the sand which had been brought from abandoned test ranges from which the sand had been dredged.

Another approach to reduce erosion or provide protected areas for boat anchoring is the construction of a breakwater, an offshore structure against which the waves break, leaving calmer waters behind it. Unfortunately, this means that waves can no longer reach the beach to keep the longshore drift of sand moving. The drift is interrupted, the sand is deposited in the quieter water, and the shoreline builds out forming a tombolo behind the breakwater, eventually covering the structure with sand.  The image shows this result at the breakwater constructed by the city of Venice, California in an attempt to create a quiet water harbor.  The tombolo behind the breakwater is now acting as a large groin in the beach drift.


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Introduction to Physical Geography by R. Adam Dastrup is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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