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SWASH: a New Method for Quantifying Coastal Change

Skip USGS links group Page contents: Introduction || Methodology || Current Survey Program and Example Results End of USGS links group


Front view image of the 6-wheel amphibious buggy used by the SWASH system Coastal erosion is a serious national problem with long-term economic and social consequences. Developed areas are threatened with billions of dollars in property damage as a result of storm impacts and long-term erosion. Over the last few decades, data on the position of the shoreline has emerged as the principal source of information for local, state, and federal government agencies charged with managing coastal erosion. This measure of the shifting land/water interface is also an important source of information for scientific investigations of coastal change, for determinations of the sediment budget, and for conducting numerical simulations of shoreline change.

Despite the importance of this measure of coastal change, the methods available for collecting shoreline position data are very limited. The most commonly applied method-shoreline interpretation from aerial photography-is expensive, labor-intensive, and involves a considerable amount of subjectivity in identifying the shoreline. There is a significant need for a method that can provide an unambiguous and repeatable measure of shoreline position, can cover large sections of coast within a single low tide period, is inexpensive to operate, and can be used for both long-term monitoring and rapid-response surveys of storm impacts. In response to this need, theUSGSdevelopedSWASH, a vehicle-based system for measuring shoreline position which utilizes recent advances in the Global Positioning System (GPS).SWASHstands for "Surveying Wide-Area Shorelines."


Schematic of SWASH system methodology TheSWASHsystem is mounted on a six-wheel amphibious all-terrain vehicle (click here for image of the buggy and details of instruments used). As the vehicle transits the coast, an array of GPS sensors are used to make high-accuracy measurements of horizontal position, vertical position, and beach slope. Following the field survey, position and slope data are combined to compute shoreline position, defined as the horizontal location of a target elevation contour's intersection with the beach. See SWASHschematic for more details. In keeping with historical sources on shoreline information, the Mean High Water (MHW) contour is usually chosen as the definition of the shoreline.

In contrast to shorelines derived by most previous methods,SWASHshorelines have well-defined error bars, important for determining the statistical significance of shoreline change. Error bars are calculated on a point-by-point basis as a function of beach slope and the deviation between the elevation driven and MHW.SWASHcan survey more than 70 km of shoreline within a single low tide period and provide near real-time information on shoreline changes during storms.SWASHis also very inexpensive to operate relative to previous methods for obtaining shoreline position.

Current Survey Program and Example Results

Line graph showing example shoreline change results using the SWASH system TheSWASHsystem is currently being applied to study storm-induced and fair weather shoreline change on beaches in North Carolina and Massachusetts. The most extensive set of measurements are within the Cape Cod National Seashore, where both the short-term impact of storms and the longer seasonal cycle of change has been measured in a continuing survey program initiated in April 1998. This study area map shows the along-coast reference line used in the following example results. An example of the short-term impact of a Northeaster storm on 45 km of Cape Cod's outer coast is given in this figure. The shoreline erosion response was extraordinarily non-uniform, with zones of significant erosion (more than 20 m of shoreline recession) alternating with zones of virtual stability (less than 2 m of change). In the period of decreasing waves following the storm, the pattern of change almost entirely reversed, with the erosional zones showing strong accretion and the stable zones still exhibiting no significant change. Similar results have been obtained for other storms on Cape Cod, as well as along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Although the processes responsible for these erosional "hotspots" are unknown, their identification has important implications for management of both cultural and environmental resources along the coast. Research is ongoing to better characterize the locations and persistence of erosional hotspots and to understand their cause or causes.

The seasonal cycle of shoreline position variability on Cape Cod is given in this figure. Shoreline position is averaged over the "bluff-backed coast" (kilometers 17.5 to 45.0 on the Cape Cod study area map) and plotted as a function of time since the first survey in April 1998. Although much variability exists from survey to survey, there is a clear yearly signal of erosion and accretion which is tied to variations in overall storminess between winter and summer. This data series, when extended for several more years, will help characterize the natural high-frequency variability of shoreline position, both in winter and summer, information important for quantifying the error in estimates of long-term shoreline change.

For discussion, comments, or questions on the SWASH system contact: Jeff List ( or

		Jeffrey H. List            |
		U.S. Geological Survey     |  PH: (508) 457-2343 
		384 Woods Hole Road        |  FAX: (508) 457-2310
		Woods Hole, MA  02543-1598 |   
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This page last modified on Monday, 14-Jan-2013 04:50:47 EST