Wave Impacts On Cliffs: From The Field To The Laboratory


  • YAXIONG SHEN The University of Auckland, New Zealand
  • COLIN WHITTAKER The University of Auckland, New Zealand
  • MARK DICKSON The University of Auckland, New Zealand




Wave impacts, cliff erosion, field data analysis, physical modelling


Rock coasts occupy over 50% of the global shoreline and many sandy beaches are underlain by coastal platforms and rocky cliffs. The problem of wave-driven cliff erosion is of great societal importance, with many coastal communities located on top of cliffs that are at risk from erosion. Continuing global mean sea level rise and changes in storminess are generally expected to exacerbate the erosion of coastlines (Hurst et al., 2016), as larger waves can reach the cliff toe without breaking offshore. However, the science underpinning wave-induced cliff erosion is still at a relatively early stage. Even the relative contributions of waves to cliff erosion, which include hydraulic forces, impulse pressures and abrasion, are not well resolved.

Most insights into wave impacts on cliffs come from field observations of coastal ground motion during storm events (e.g. Young et al., 2011, Huppert et al., 2020). These field investigations demonstrate the dependence of large wave impacts on both water levels and wave conditions, and in some cases the correlation of periods of large ground motion with increased erosion (Earlie et al., 2015). Unsurprisingly, although large impacts generally occur at high tide during storms characterised by large significant wave heights, the largest impacts occur when tidal levels and storm surge combine to provide water levels that are conducive to the incident waves breaking on the cliffs (Thompson et al., 2019; 2022). Larger wave heights or shallower water levels tend to lead to breaking further offshore, with a broken wave interacting with the cliff, while smaller wave heights or deeper water levels may preclude strong wave breaking on the cliffs.

There have been relatively few experimental studies into wave-driven cliff erosion; these were generally undertaken under very idealised wave conditions (e.g. Sunamura, 1977) and using materials that were either too soft to approximate natural rocks (e.g. Sunamura, 1977; 1982) or too hard to be eroded (Hansom et al., 2008). Although these experiments have informed the development of rocky coast evolution models, their results have not been replicated or verified, and rigorous scaling laws to link laboratory erosion rates to field time scales are currently lacking. However, considering cliffs as steep or vertical (natural) coastal structures, a large body of experimental work has been undertaken to investigate impact pressures and their implications for the failure of engineered structures (e.g. Peregrine, 2003, Bullock et al., 2007). These investigations are complicated by the inherent variability of the wave impact pressures, even within controlled experiments undertaken with highly repeatable incident wave conditions (Raby et al., 2022).

Although field and laboratory data are valuable, it is still very challenging to quantify wave contributions to cliff erosion due to the relatively short durations and variable conditions of most field records. On the other hand, most controlled laboratory investigations have typically focused on loads on non-erodible engineered structures such as seawalls. The current project seeks to advance understanding of the fundamental mechanisms and timescales of wave-driven erosion on rocky cliffs, which will be vital in improving assessments of cliff erosion hazard in high-energy wave environments as sea levels rise.




Conference Proceedings Volume


Extended abstracts