Coastal erosion

Last updated:7 September 2022

What is coastal erosion?

Coastal erosion (or shoreline retreat) is the loss of coastal lands due to the net removal of sediments or bedrock from the shoreline.

Coastal erosion can be either a:

  • rapid-onset hazard (occurs very quickly, a period of days to weeks)
  • slow-onset hazard (occurring over many years, or decades to centuries).

What causes coastal erosion?

Coastal erosion is typically driven by the action of waves and currents, but can also result from mass wasting processes on slopes, and land subsidence. Significant episodes of coastal erosion are often associated with extreme weather events (coastal storms, surge and flooding) but also from tsunami, both because the waves and currents tend to have greater intensity and because the associated storm surge or tsunami inundation can allow waves and currents to attack landforms which are normally out of their reach. On coastal headlands, such processes can lead to undercutting of cliffs and steep slopes and contribute to mass wasting. In addition, heavy rainfall can enhance the saturation of soils, with high saturation leading to a reduction in the soil's shear strength, and a corresponding increase in the chance of slope failure (landslides).

Coastal erosion is a natural process which occurs whenever the transport of material away from the shoreline is not balanced by new material being deposited onto the shoreline. Many coastal landforms naturally undergo quasi-periodic cycles of erosion and accretion on time-scales of days to years. This is especially evident on sandy landforms such as beaches, dunes, and intermittently closed and open lagoon entrances. However, human activities can also strongly influence the propensity of landforms to erode. For example, the construction of coastal structures (such as breakwaters, groynes and seawalls) can lead to changes in coastal sediment transport pathways, resulting in erosion in some areas and accretion in others. The removal of sediments from the coastal system (e.g., by dredging or sand mining), or a reduction in the supply of sediments (e.g., by the regulation of rivers) can also be associated with unintended erosion. At larger scales, natural and human-induced climate change can modulate the likelihood and rate of coastal erosion.

Coastal erosion becomes a hazard when society does not adapt to its effects on people, the built environment and infrastructure.

Where does coastal erosion occur in Australia?

The most vulnerable coasts are those made up of unconsolidated sediments, such as beaches, dunes and sand cliffs, on open coasts that experience net longshore drift of sediment and on the shores of coastal lakes and lagoons. Geoscience Australia has developed an online mapping portal that allows for the identification of areas of the Australian coast that are experiencing erosion. The Digital Earth Australia (DEA) Coastlines product is a free, publicly available dataset that measures annual shorelines and rates of coastal change along the entire Australian coastline from 1988 to the present. It combines satellite data from Geoscience Australia’s Digital Earth Australia (DEA) program with tidal modelling to map the typical location of the entire 33,000-kilometre Australian coastline at mean sea level for each year. The tool enables historic trends of coastal erosion and progradation (growth) to be seen at both a local and continental scale. DEA Coastlines data is available to download and to explore on the interactive DEA Maps platform.

The Smartline national dataset maps record the location of those coastal substrates and landforms that have greater or lesser sensitivity to potential coastal impacts of climate change and sea-level rise (IPCC 2013), such as accelerated erosion and shoreline recession, increased slumping or rock fall hazards, changing dune mobility, and other hazards.

  • Rapid onset:
    • The NSW coast has a long history of experiencing coastal erosion events dating back to 1857. Single storm events have caused coastal erosion, such as that associated with East Coast Low storms in 2015 and 2016 that damaged beachfront properties in Sydney. A series of large storm events in 1974 led to even more extensive damage to coastal properties and infrastructure in this region.
  • Slow onset:
    • The Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road are a result of landscape change and coastal erosion over millenia. There were originally 12 limestone features with 8 now remaining. These structures remain vulnerable to further erosion from waves.
    • Around the Australian coast, nearly 39 000 buildings are located within one hundred metres of 'soft' shorelines and are at risk from accelerated erosion due to sea-level rise and changing climate conditions (as at 2011).

Our role

Reducing risk to Australians from coastal erosion

Geoscience Australia is committed to support Australia's capability to managing the impact of natural hazards, including coastal erosion. Our teams:

  • develop an understanding of natural hazards and community exposure to support risk mitigation and community resilience
  • provide authoritative, independent information and advice to the Australian Government and other stakeholders to support risk mitigation and community resilience
  • maintain and improve systems for effective natural disaster preparedness, response and recovery
  • contribute to Australia's overseas development program.

In particular, we:

  • develops national-scale datasets as a fundamental input to coastal erosion hazard and risk assessments
  • develops methods and tools that can support the development of coastal risk assessments
  • supports national initiatives to manage the coastal environment.

To learn more about our work, access our latest data or hazard assessment tools, visit the Community Safety page.