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Classification of Coasts

Classification of Coasts

They're alive! Coastlines - all 620,000 km of them - are active places of change and disruption where Earth's dynamic nature conflicts with humanity's tendency to try to keep things stable. Everyone knows that storms and tsunamis can make coastlines risky places to live, but even "normal" events like beach drift, tides, and wave action keep all coastlines in flux. Today, climate change is repeating a story seen many times in Earth's past, but this time, rising sea levels are encountering billions of humans - a third of humanity - who live in and near coastal areas. More than ever, it is crucial to understand coasts geography, also known as coastal geomorphology, the geographic study of coastline evolution. First, we must learn various ways to classify coastlines.

What is the Coast Definition?

Coastlines are the narrow zones of interaction between the oceans and the land. More broadly speaking, coasts are natural systems that include a number of landscapes characterised by some level of adaptation to coastal conditions that include tides, ocean currents, waves, salt water, sand, winds, and other factors.

Classifying Coasts

Coasts evolve depending on long-term processes that take millions of years, as well as short-term processes that are constantly happening.

Long-term Processes: Overview

Over millions of years, the location of coastlines fluctuates based on the volume of water in the oceans, the size of the ocean basins themselves and the movement of tectonic plates.

Tectonic processes such as seafloor spreading can change the size of ocean basins by adding magma along the mid-ocean ridges. From land, sediment is constantly being added to the world's oceans, and over millions of years, the dying off of coral reefs also adds material.

Another way that the eustatic sea level can change is based on the water's salinity (salt content), as this affects water density.

During episodes of global cooling, much of the world's water is locked up in ice caps as freshwater, with less water in the oceans as a result. During interglacials such as during the last 11,000 years, ice caps melt, and sea levels increase. This cycle has been repeated many times, with dramatic effects on coastlines.

A long-term process called isostatic rebound (glacial isostatic adjustment) occurs during interglacials, as the massive weight of ice caps is removed and compressed land surfaces emerge from the sea.

During the last several hundred thousand years, sea levels have risen and fallen tens and even hundreds of metres on numerous occasions. When sea levels fall, land bridges can form, such as between Australia and Tasmania. When sea levels rise, land bridges can be destroyed, see the deep dive below for an example.

An interesting example of a long-term process in the UK is 'Doggerland'. About 12,000 years ago, towards the end of the last major ice age, the area between the UK and mainland Europe looked very different: instead of the North Sea, there was a vast expanse of marshland, swamps, sloping hills, and wooded valleys. According to geophysical surveys, this land could have stretched from Britain's east coast to modern-day the Netherlands, Germany's western coast and the Jutland peninsula.

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers used 'Doggerland' to cross between countries, but they also lived there, migrating with the seasons. However, sea levels started to rise, and around 6,000 years ago, the hunter-gatherers of Doggerland had to migrate to higher ground, located in nowadays England and the Netherlands.

What exactly happened to Doggerland is still a bit of a mystery. However, recent research has suggested that climate change, which led to glacial melts, caused Doggerland's doom. Eventually, Dogg

For the past 15 years, Professor Vincent Gaffney from the University of Bradford has spent surveying Doggerland as part of the 'Europe's Lost Frontiers project.1 2

Classification of Coasts Hypothetical extent of Doggerland StudySmarterFig. 1 - The hypothetical extent of Doggerland.

Short-term Processes: Overview

Coasts are built with material from the ocean, local material (beach sand, rock from cliffs and platforms), and material coming from inland.

Sediment from inland source areas such as mountain ranges is transported to coastal areas via river systems. Depending on local conditions, this sediment may be deposited as new coastline (for example, in bird's-foot deltas), removed to the continental shelf, or even flow off the shelf through submarine canyons.

The ocean itself transports sediment perpendicularly to the coast, depositing it every tidal cycle on the beach and sometimes well inland through tidal bores up estuaries. During storm events and tsunamis, water and its contents are often deposited many meters or even kilometres inland, depending on the slope of the coastal landscape and the amount of energy involved.

The ocean also transports sediment parallel to the coast via longshore currents, which are related to local wind directions involved in the constant movement of sand.

Coastlines include many areas of sand, mud, and other sediment transported from inland or laterally along the coast. They also include igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock formations in the process of being eroded by salt water and wind and perhaps also being uplifted or depressed at the same time.

Saltwater corrodes surfaces rapidly, particularly when becoming aerosolised as a salt spray or when hitting solid surfaces through wave action. Wave action is heightened during storms, which often occur seasonally and by tides.

Types of Coastal Waves

Many geographical factors influence waves that break on coasts. These include winds, tidal cycles, storm activity, the shape of the terrain underwater and on land, etc. Waves then take on different characteristics that determine how their potential energy is converted into kinetic energy.

Two helpful terms are swash and backwash. The swash is the water of the wave as it breaks on the shore, heading up the beach, and the backwash is the same water travelling back to the sea.

Constructive Waves

These are typically small and far apart, with stronger swashes than backwashes. Sediment that is carried up to the beach is left there, and net deposition on the coast occurs.

Destructive Waves

These are relatively tall and close together, and their backwash is more powerful than their swash. Therefore, the backwash carries sediment back into the ocean, resulting in net erosion of the coastal landscape.

Types of Coasts

There are several complementary ways to characterise coastal landscapes and landforms. These include primary and secondary coasts, emergent and submergent coastlines, erosional versus depositional, low-energy and high-energy, and active vs passive. These different classification schemes are related to the dominant long-term and/or short-term forces that happen to be the primary contributors to a coastline when it is being characterised.

Primary vs Secondary Coasts

As described above, primary coasts are those formed by long-term processes such as plate tectonics and climate cycles. Once tectonic and climatic stability is reached in a coastal system--such as after the end of rapid warming following an ice age--then coastlines are subject to secondary processes. Primary processes may still be occurring, but secondary processes are dominant.

In the current "Anthropocene" era, secondary coastal development appears to be ceding to primary evolution, caused not only by the rapid sea-level rise attributed to human-caused global warming but also by the vast and devastating effects of human coastal infrastructure development that is destroying barrier islands, sheltering reefs, estuarine zones, and even cutting off natural processes like beach drift.

Anthropocene - in recent history, human activity began to have a major impact on the Earth's climate and ecosystems. This geological time unit, albeit an unofficial one, is called the Anthropocene Epoch3.

Emergent vs Submergent Coastlines

Emergent coastlines are those that are rising relative to sea level, whereas submergent coastlines are those where the sea level is rising relative to the coast.

Emergent Coastlines

Secondary coastal landscapes where the sea level has dropped relative to the land (because the land is rising, the sea is falling, or both) are quite distinctive and include emergent coastal landforms such as raised beaches and marine platforms.

Submergent Coastlines

Secondary coastal landscapes where the sea level has risen relative to the land (because the land is subsiding, the sea is rising, or both) form some of the world's most spectacular and distinctive coastlines.

Examples are:

Submergent coastlines
RiasThis is a drowned river valley that will remain open to the sea. This is similar to artificial rias that result from the creation of reservoirs.

Classification of Coasts Port Jackson in Sydney is an example of a ria StudySmarterFig. 2 - Port Jackson in Sydney Harbour in Australia is an example of a ria.

Dalmatian coastsNamed after the area of Dalmatia in the Adriatic Sea. They are formed by geology creating valleys that are parallel to the coast. Then, when sea levels rise, a series of elongated islands remain offshore.
FjordsThey are inundated glacial valley that often extends as a sound many kilometres inland, flanked by towering cliffs. It may or may not be fed by active glaciers. Though the world's most famous fjords are in Norway, New Zealand, coastal British Columbia, and Alaska, Greenland can claim the title for the world's longest: Scorsebysund, at 248 km.

Classification of Coasts Milford Sound fjord in New Zealand StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Milford Sound fjord in New Zealand.

Table 1

Erosional vs Depositional Coasts

Erosional and depositional forces can and usually do occur simultaneously in coastal landscapes.

The marine processes that can cause both erosion and deposition involve two primary types of transportation. These are traction, whereby heavier materials are dragged or bounce along the seafloor, and suspension, whereby smaller particles can float in the currents.

Sub-aerial erosion, mass wasting, and direct runoff also occur on coastlines, as elevated coastal landscapes break down and erode into the sea.

Erosional Landscapes

Headlands, beaches, and other coastal features are typically being eroded constantly by wave action.

Sea cliffs are particularly dynamic locations and, depending on their parent material, may be carved away or bored into by waves, resulting in caves. Rocky areas along coasts are eventually broken apart by hydraulic action, with wave-quarrying forming arches and stacks. An example is the White Cliffs of Dover.

As the sea impacts the land, rocky coasts are affected by:

  • corrasion - when rocks hit cliffs

  • abrasion - where sand and salt act like sandpaper, wearing down rock

  • cavitation - the carving away of weaker rock layers, often forming sea caves

  • solution - the dissolution of limestone and other less-resistant rock

  • attrition - the erosion of particles in the sea by other particles (rounding of sand grains, for example)

Classification of Coasts White Cliffs of Dover is an example of erosional landscape StudySmarterFig. 4 - The White Cliffs of Dover, UK, is an example of an erosional landscape.

Depositional Landscapes

Beaches are the most famous and typical landscapes of coastal deposition. They are incredibly dynamic places that change with every tidal cycle and every season. They consist primarily of sand (eroded from sandstone) transported laterally by the wind (beach drift), a very important point meaning that sandy beaches migrate sort of like the shorebirds often seen on them. This is why when areas are blocked by seawalls and other human infrastructure, new sand must be trucked in to fill beaches. If sand migration is blocked, natural beaches and other features disappear.

Beaches may also consist of other types of rubble from volcanic rock and near-shore coral reefs.

Various types of depositional sand landforms result from wind and water action. These include:

  • Simple and compound spits: these are small peninsulas formed by migrating sand

  • Tombolos: an isthmus of sand that forms between a beach and an island

  • Offshore bars: areas of usually submerged sand elevated above the seafloor

  • Barrier beaches and islands: built from sandbars, when these rises far enough above tide level that terrestrial vegetation can take root and stabilise them. Longshore currents create barrier islands parallel to certain coasts, always highly subject to storm activity and erosion.

  • Sand dunes: away from the active tidal zone, storms deposit sand where vegetation can grow on it and stabilise it. Wind action often creates characteristic dune shapes similar to those found in deserts. As coastline emergence occurs, old sand dunes are effectively located farther inland but are still often considered part of the coastal environment.


Along submergent coastlines, rivers often form deltas where they meet the sea. This estuarine zone of saltwater and brackish (salt-fresh mix) produces some of Earth's most biologically rich but environmentally sensitive ecosystems. Salt-tolerant vegetation ranges from grasses to trees anchoring saltmarshes and mangrove swamps inundated during high tide. Mudflats that emerge during low tide can stretch for kilometres and are rich in nutrients and organisms.

Low Energy vs High Energy Coasts

When wave energy is considered the primary factor, coasts can roughly be divided into high-energy and low-energy environments.

Low energy coasts

These tend to be either in a location sheltered from waves and wind (protected by an island or a reef, for example) or in a place where yearly weather fluctuations are minimal and storms infrequent, as in equatorial regions. Low-energy coasts may see much slower change relative to high-energy coasts and are typically depositional environments.

High energy coasts

These are exposed to direct waves, bearing the brunt of storms, and are usually beset by constant and often high winds. They are typically erosional environments.

Tectonic plates and coastlines

The location of a coastline relative to a tectonic plate boundary and what type of plate boundary it is is a strong determinant of coastal evolution. An example is Big Sur.

Coastal classification Big Sur active coastal landscape StudySmarterFig. 5 - Big Creek Bridge in Big Sur, California, US. Big Sur is an active coastal landscape.

Active Coasts

Active margins along tectonic plates may coincide with coastlines, and where this is the case, the continental shelf is very narrow and gives way quickly to an offshore marine trench, as along the Pacific Ocean's "Ring of Fire." Emergent coastlines result from the tectonic uplift of landmasses in these areas.

Passive Coasts

Wide continental shelves are usually found along passive margins where the land meets the sea somewhere other than the edge of a plate. Most of the coastlines around the Atlantic Oceans are of this type.

Coast Classification - Key Takeaways

  • Primary coasts are those affected by long-term processes like tectonics and climate change, whereas secondary coasts are affected by short-term processes such as longshore drift.
  • Emergent coastlines are where the land is rising relative to the eustatic sea level, whereas submergent coastlines are where the sea level is rising relative to the land.
  • Erosional coasts are characterised by a greater rate of material removal than deposition; depositional coasts are being actively by new sediment from inland, local sources, and the ocean.
  • High-energy coasts are exposed to the brunt of the weather and the direct force of waves and tend to have erosional landscapes, whereas low-energy coasts are sheltered and favour deposition.
  • Active coasts are found along tectonic plate boundaries, whereas passive coasts are not along a plate boundary.


  1. Walker, J., Gaffney, V., Fitch, S., Muru, M., Fraser, A., Bates, M., & Bates, R. 'A great wave: The Storegga tsunami and the end of Doggerland?' Antiquity, 94(378), 1409-1425. 2020.
  2. The University of Bradford. 'Professor Vincent Gaffney 50th Anniversary Chair.' bradford.ac.uk. 2022.
  3. National Geographic. 'Anthropocene.' education.nationalgeographic.org. 2022.
  4. Fig. 1: The hypothetical extent of Doggerland based on 15 years of research (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doggerland3er_en.png) by Francis Lima (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Francis_Lima&action=edit&redlink=1) Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
  5. Fig. 4: The White Cliffs of Dover, UK, is an example of an erosional landscape (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:White_Cliffs_of_Dover_02.JPG) by Immanuel Giel (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Immanuel_Giel) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  6. Fig. 5: Big Creek Bridge in Big Sur, California, US. Big Sur is an active coastal landscape (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Big_Creek_Bridge_%28Big_Sur%29.jpg) by Jake Faulstich (no profile) Lisenced by CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Frequently Asked Questions about Classification of Coasts

Coasts are classified based on whether they are emergent or submergent, erosional or depositional, primary of secondary, low-energy or high-energy, and active or passive.

The two categories of coast in reference to sea level are emergent and submergent.

Primary coasts are those influenced by long-term processes such as tectonism and climate change. Secondary coasts are those influenced by short-term processes such as longshore currents after long-term processes have stabilized.

Coastlines have many unique features, including cliffs, caves, wave-cut platforms, beaches, barrier islands, estuaries, tomolos, sandbars, and spits.

Final Classification of Coasts Quiz


What are the two types of waves?

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  1. Destructive
  2. Constructive

Show question


True or False: The presence of a reef offshore is likely a reason for a low-energy coastline.

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Show question


What region has the world’s longest fjord?

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Show question


Which type of action is NOT involved in the erosion of sea cliffs?

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Show question


Name some types of depositional landforms.

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  • Simple/compound spits
  • Tombolos
  • Barrier islands
  • Barrier beaches
  • Offshore bars
  • Sand dunes

Show question


Which one of the following is NOT a type of submergent coastline?

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Raised platform

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True or False: Active coasts occur far away from a plate boundary.

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Show question


What is it called when the land rises after being compressed by glaciers?

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Isostatic rebound

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Do longshore currents run parallel or perpendicular to the coast?

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Show question


What process creates round sand particles?

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Show question


How many kilometres of coastline are there in the world?

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620,000 km

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Which of the following factors does NOT affect the action of waves on coastlines?

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Show question


What three general types of area contribute material to coasts?

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  1. Inland
  2. Local areas
  3. Plate tectonics 

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What two main activities influence primary coastlines in the long term?

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  1. Climate  change
  2. Plate  tectonics 

Show question


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