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Definition of Coastline:
The coastline is a line that is considered the boundary between sea and land.
This is the common definition for Coastline, other definitions can be discussed in the article

Coastline definition

There is no unambiguous and generally adopted definition of the coastline. Each country has its own definition.

Criteria for defining a coastline include:

  • determining whether there is coastal erosion or coastal accretion;
  • determining whether intervention is necessary if the coastline retreats (assets and interests at stake);
  • the accuracy with which the location of the coastline can be determined;
  • the effort required to determine the location of the coastline.

Several coastline choices are possible:

  • A coastline based on fixed points (for example a seawall at the upper end of the beach). Disadvantage for sedimentary coasts: it does not provide insight into beach erosion or accretion.
  • A coastline based on the instantaneous waterline. Disadvantage: the great variability, in particular the effect of tides.
  • A coastline based on the average waterline at high tide or low tide. Satisfactory for rocky coasts, but disadvantage for sandy dune coasts: coastline variability is still considerable due to the influence of storms and the influence of seasonal variability in the wave climate.
  • A coastline based on the transition from beach to dune. This is a more usual choice. Advantages: It can be easily determined; beach erosion or accretion is reflected in retreat or advance of the coastline, while the variability is much less than for the average LW or HW lines.

Shoreline management based on structural erosion

However, the latter choice of coastline is sensitive to coastline retreat caused by occasional storms, which often has a temporary character and can be restored by natural processes when a calmer wave climate has established (see Dune erosion). In this case, interventions to restore the beach are not necessary. Shoreline management is therefore often more interested in structural coastal erosion, which is the result of a structural deficit in the balance of sand input and sand output for a particular coastal section. To gain insight into this sand balance, it is necessary to monitor the sand volume of the active zone for sections along the entire coast.

Base coastline

Fig. 1. Definition sketch of the base coastline, a volume-based coastline position, which is indicative of structural shoreline changes. The beach volume [math] V \; [m^3/m] [/math] is the sand volume comprised between the dunefoot and a seaward boundary defined by the intersection of the beach profile with a lower plane situated [math]2H[/math] below the dunefoot, where [math]H[/math] is the dunefoot level above LW. The volume-based coastline is situated at a distance [math]0.5 V/H[/math] from the dunefoot. The location of the dunefoot is determined at a fixed distance [math]C[/math] from a fixed reference line.

In the Netherlands, because it is lying for a large part below mean sea level, the dune belt is of crucial importance to protect the hinterland against flooding. Structural beach erosion increases the vulnerability of the dune coast and is therefore systematically redressed along the entire coast by means of sand nourishments. To determine where structural coastal erosion occurs, the coast has been divided into coastal sections of approximately 200m longitudinal length. A fictitious coastline, the so-called base coastline, has been defined for each section, which is based on the sand volume in this coastal section. Both the volume above the waterline and below the waterline are taken into account. The considered volume below the waterline is related to a water depth equal to the height of the dunefoot above the low waterline, see Fig. 1. This volume is determined annually by coastal monitoring. Experience shows that the variation of this fictitious base coastline provides a reliable estimate of the structural erosion or accretion of the coast[1].

Related articles

Risk and coastal zone policy: example from the Netherlands
Dune erosion
Typical examples of structural erosion
Dealing with coastal erosion
Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM)
Shoreline management


  1. RIKZ 1996. Coastline management, from coastal monitoring to sand nourishment. Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, National Institute for Coastal and Marine Management/RIKZ

The main author of this article is Job Dronkers
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Job Dronkers (2021): Coastline. Available from [accessed on 8-05-2021]