Rock coasts are erosional environments which form as a result of the landward retreat of bedrock at the shoreline. Vertical faces plunging into deep water form imposing cliffs on many shorelines. Other cliff forms may be steeply sloping, but no strict definition delineates a slope from a cliff. In many instances the retreat of the cliff leads to the formation of a rock ledge, or shore platform, at or close to sea-level. The surface of these platforms may be either subhorizontal or slope gently in a seaward direction.
Rock coasts have been considered a neglected coastal landform (Trenhaile 1980, 2002; Stephenson 2000). The two seminal books on the topic (Trenhaile 1987; Sunamura 1992) were written over two decades ago and they still form a core academic source which people refer to when seeking to understand the morphology and dynamics of rocky coasts. In the past decade there has been growing interest in rock coasts; however, the subdiscipline is still in its infancy when compared with other landform systems such as sandy beaches, rivers or glaciers. Much of the recent research is focused on a case-study approach, with small teams of researchers using their local field sites to infer wider morphological models of platform or cliff systems.
A major driver for the growing interest in the rocky coast has been the advent of new and emerging technology that enables us to address problems not previously accessible and at scales not previously achievable. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scientific investigation was observational and lacked quantitative data (Dana 1849; Bartrum 1926). Such qualitative descriptions of the rocky coast continued into the mid twentieth century, when quantitative data from field surveying became the norm. The use of techniques for measuring rock hardness, such as the Schmidt hammer, developed soon after (Goudie 2006), but it is in the last decade that the greatest advances in technology have been made. The development of laser surveying, which can be operated from aerial and terrestrial platforms, has greatly increased our understanding of these landform systems (Kennedy 2013). Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) techniques now are able to survey landforms to centimetre scale from the air (Lim et al. 2005; Palamara et al. 2007) and can also penetrate the water column, allowing seamless surveying of the subaerial and submarine portions of the coast (Kennedy et al. in press). Terrestrial laser scanners can produce digital elevation models of cliff and platform systems to millimetre scale and have been used for monitoring both long- and short-term cliff retreat in the UK (Lim et al. 2005; Chapter 3 by Lim 2014). The sheer volume of data that can now be collected is unprecedented. These data, which give a very precise indication of morphology at the time of survey, can now be combined with other techniques such as micro-erosion metres to provide data on rates of erosion at the millimetre scale from hourly to decadal timescales (Stephenson et al. 2004; Trenhaile 2006).
The process-side of morphodynamics has been particularly neglected in the discipline. Wave-tank experiments were undertaken in the mid-late twentieth century, mainly in Japan (Chapter 12 by Sunamura et al. 2014), but also in Australia (Chapter 14 by Kennedy 2014); however, it is only in the past decade that field experimentation has started to precisely quantify energy transfers on the shore and resulting sediment movement. This more quantitative approach has been driven by a new generation of researchers taking advantage of new technologies, particularly the miniaturization of sensors, greater computing memory capacity and increased battery life. As a result, the transformation of wave energy from gravity to infragravity frequencies is now being quantified through field deployments of pressure sensors (e.g. Ogawa et al. 2011; Marshall & Stephenson 2011; Beetham & Kench 2011) and individual pebbles traced in the littoral zone using radio-frequency identification tags (e.g. Benelli et al. 2012). The result is that researchers are now starting to identify and quantify erosion processes at different spatial and temporal scales.
The unprecedented level of data quality and quantity that can now be collected produces its own challenges for coastal researchers. Specifically, how does the data scale from, and between, the local to regional level? How applicable are measurements of micron-scale change of a rock surface to understanding the regional evolution of a rocky coast? In part, such questions are related to the dominant processes driving landscape evolution. For example, in areas where wave plucking of the bedrock is the dominant erosive process, the millimetre-scale granular disintegration and water layer weathering may be less important. How quickly the joints themselves are eroded is however critically important as this can determine how quickly wave quarrying can take place (Paris et al. 2011). On the other hand, if the bedrock is homogenous and grain disintegration is the primary mechanism of platform erosion (e.g. Kaikoura, New Zealand) then the micro-scale surface downwearing is critically important (Stephenson & Kirk 1996). The challenge for researchers is therefore both to understand the scale of their particular study and to contextualize it within the boundary conditions of the system (Naylor & Stephenson 2010). Such a task can be very complex, particularly when investigating a new area where the boundary conditions are unknown.

Boundary conditions

The evolution of rocky shore landforms is driven by the action of subaerial, biological and marine processes. Subaerial weathering breaks down the bedrock by either directly removing material or making it more susceptible to erosion by marine processes, namely waves and tides. Biological activity is complicated by virtue of being erosive, protective and constructive, or a variety of combinations of each type. Biological activity is also closely interlinked with other weathering and erosive agents (Chapter 5 by Coombes 2014). The present-day form of a shoreline is therefore dependent on the balance between the assailing forces of erosion and the resisting forces of the bedrock. On shorelines where the bedrock is highly resistant to forcing agents, such as those composed of basalt, plunging cliffs may occur (e.g. Chapter 13 by Dickson & Stephenson 2014). In instances where the bedrock is highly erodible, such as in mudstone, sloping platforms are more common.
Predicting the form and evolutionary direction of a rock coast based on their formative processes is, however, difficult. In fact it is becoming apparent that rock coasts evolve through a range of differing, and contrasting, processes (Naylor et al. 2010). As described above, the suite of processes that dominate landform evolution in a given location are modulated by the external boundary conditions (e.g. sea-level history, climate and tidal range). The rate of variation within the boundary conditions is significant over large spatial scales, such as between countries or hemispheres, but on a regional level or local scale the variation in boundary conditions is often much less. For example, frost and ice comprise a significant geomorphic agent on cliffs and shore platforms developed in high latitudes (Chapter 16 by Hansom et al. 2014), but it are irrelevant at low latitudes. Tides are another major boundary condition. For example, Japan (Chapter 12 by Sunamura et al. 2014), New Zealand (Chapter 13 by Dickson & Stephenson 2014) and southern Australia (Chapter 14 by Kennedy 2014) are microtidal, which leads to the development of semi-horizontal rock platforms, while eastern Canada (Chapter 8 by Trenhaile 2014a) is predominantly macrotidal and intertidal rocky surfaces which slope at greater than 5° are found. The distribution of wave and weathering processes across these varied sloped surfaces is very different which means that direct comparisons of landform evolutionary models are not always appropriate; however, models of landform change developed in these regions can have applicability for those areas with similar tidal range. In addition, rocky landforms may evolve over multiple eustatic cycles, which means the magnitude of the erosive process may change significantly through time (Trenhaile 2001).
Significant variations in coastal morphology can occur as a result of variations in another major boundary condition – the geology. Both rock mass and rock material properties exert major controls on rock coastal processes (Naylor et al. 2012). The effects of geology are most obvious when crossing from one geological unit to another in the same region. For example, along the Great Ocean Road of Victoria, Australia, low cliffs and shore platforms are common on the Cretaceous sandstones, but adjacent to this unit, on Cenozoic limestones, high cliffs fronted by narrow beaches, arches and stacks are common (Fig. 1.1a, b). On the smaller scale of a single outcrop alternating beds of lithologies of different hardness can dominate the micro–mesoscale relief of a shore platform forming a stepped (Fig. 1.1c) or washboard morphology (Fig. 1.1d). Geological control on rock coast erosion and evolution is often complex, especially when other parameters can exert a stronger control than lithology. For example, rock mass properties (i.e. discontinuities) were found to exert a much stronger control on erosion processes than the rock type itself when comparing limestones and dolerite (Cruslock et al. 2010). Here the rocks with more similar structural properties (but different lithology) produced similar erosion products despite having different boundary conditions (i.e. waves and ice).
Fig. 1.1. (a) Platforms and low cliffs formed in Cretaceous sandstones near Lorne, Australia. (b) High vertical cliffs fronted by narrow beaches characterize the rock coast of the 12 Apostles region of Victoria, Australia where Cenozoic limestones dominate the shore. (c) A stepped shore platform morphology on Lord Howe Island, Australia where more resistant basaltic dykes intrude between softer breccia units. (d) A classic washboard morphology of a shore platform in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand. Harder sandstone units interbedded with softer mudstones project above the platform surface.
The variations in boundary conditions pose difficulties for the creation of holistic models of landform development as the conditions in which one shore platform or cliff form will be very different from place to place, region to region and through time. This has led to many of the significant debates within the subdiscipline. It also means that problems arise when relationships, such as between wave energy and platform width, or the dynamics of platform lowering measured in one area are applied in another location. The original inferences are often correct, but their application in areas with a different set of boundary conditions can yield contradictory results.
The opportunity to understand and develop holistic models of rocky coast evolution therefore becomes greatest when shorelines with similar boundary conditions are compared. This often occurs at a regional level as climate and tidal range tend to have greater similarity at this spatial scale, although as advocated by Stephenson (2000), collaboration should still also occur across regional boundaries for a holistic understanding of the global rocky shore.

Sea-level

Rock coast landforms are by definition found at the shoreline; sea-level is therefore a fundamental boundary condition (Chapter 2 by Trenhaile 2014b). However, the position of the sea is not constant over the millennial timescales of rocky shore evolution. Rocks of high erosional resistance tend to erode over multiple eustatic cycles with multistoreyed cliffs often being the resultant landscape form (Fleming 1965). For platforms, significant inheritance can occur between sea-level cycles with many shores bearing the imprint of higher sea-level during the Last Interglacial period and in some cases the penultimate interglacial such as seen on the Australian coast (Chapter 14 by Kennedy 2014). There are also suggestions that many of the subhorizontal platforms that characterize microtidal shorelines have been primarily cut during the mid Holocene highstand (Trenhaile 2010). On a global scale local Holocene sea-level history is strongly affected by vertical land movement related to glacial rebound, tectonic movements and hydro-isostacy. The north of the northern hemisphere is dominated by glacial rebound from the last Glacial Maximum, while the central Pacific is considered a truly eustatic signature being characterized by a c. +1 m highstand around 5–6 ka (Pirazzoli 1991).

Geology

The geology in which cliffs and shore platforms are formed is fundamental to determining both how fast they erode but also the form that they will take. The role of geology includes many factors, such as the rock type, mineralogy, jointing and bedding. In general harder rocks form higher cliffs or platforms at greater elevation. Rock hardness does not, however, imply a certain erosional resistance. This is because fractures and jointing will provide lines of weakness in the rock, which increases its susceptibility to erosion. The degree of jointing and fracturing not only affects the amount of erosion (Kennedy & Dickson 2006), but it also influences the products of erosion (Stephenson & Naylor 2011). This is especially the case for coastal settings dominated by storms where large accumulations of boulders may occur. The size of individual boulders and the volumes of these deposits can often be directly related to the jointing and fracturing of the bedrock in the area where they are found (Paris et al. 2011; Stephenson & Naylor 2011).
It is also often the case that on a particular stretch of coastline many different lithological units will outcrop, each with their own unique geotechnical properties. The orientation of the bedding planes, both vertically and horizontally, will have a strong influence on different landforms that emerge as softer materials are eroded preferentially to harder ones, as seen on the rock coasts of the USA and Mexico (Chapter 9 by Hapke et al. 2014) as well as South America (Chapter 10 by Blanco-Chao et al. 2014). Gulches and sea caves are often formed in this manner through the preferential erosion of weaker units (Trenhaile 1987).
The hydrogeology of a particular section of coast can also drive its evolution. Groundwater can be concentrated within specific lithological units based on their permeability and porosity and in turn this influences the erosional resistance of the bedrock and its geotechnical strength. In some areas, such as the soft-rock cliffs of France (Chapter 6 by Gómez-Pujo et al. 2014) and the UK (Chapter 3 by Lim 2014), groundwater flow can determine the nature and timing of cliff collapse and hence shoreline retreat (Duperret et al. 2005; Castedo et al. 2012).

Climate

Climate, particularly temperature and humidity, strongly influences the mechanisms of physical, biological and chemical weathering. In the tropics, terrestrial weathering profiles are often deep, which in turn lowers the erosional resistance of subaerial rocks (Nott 1994). Higher latitudes, on the other hand, tend to have lower rates of chemical erosion but high rates of physical erosion. Ice, in the form of frost as well as sea ice, can dominate rock coast erosion in the polar regions (Chapter 16 by Hansom et al. 2014); however these processes do not occur close to the equator in our current climate (Chapters 10 by Blanco-Chao et al. 2014 and 15 by Woodroffe 2014). The effect of these climatic gradients is expressed most obviously by the landforms created on carbonate lithologies. In the classic study of Guilcher (1953), he noted that cliffs in the tropics were characterized by deep notches and overhanging visors, while in the warm Mediterranean (Chapter 7 by Furlani et al. 2014) the notches were less distinct. In temperate Britain (Chapters 3 by Lim 2014 and 4 by Moses 2014), profiles tend to lack notches and slope seaward rather than being vertical. Weathering is not, however, the sole reason for this change in form; other boundary conditions such as waves and tides are also important.

Tides and wind wave

Rock coasts occur in a range of tidal environments. In macrotidal environments (such as Canada, Chapter 8 by Trenhaile 2014a), platforms tend to slope seaward while microtidal areas (Chapters 11–14 by Choi & Seong 2014; Sunamura et al. 2014; Dickson & Stephenson 2014; Kennedy 2014 respectively) are characterized by subhorizontal forms (Trenhaile 1987). Wind–wave processes on the other hand greatly influence the rates of erosion that can occur through physical destruction of the rock. This is most often represented in the presence of boulder debris, which is more common in the high-latitude storm belts (see Chapters 3 by Lim 2014 and 7 by Furlani et al. 2014).

Aim of this volume

The purpose of this Memoir is to bring together the global research of the past couple of decades alongside the established theories and debates within the discipline. Each chapter within the Memoir is structured around the boundary conditions and forcing factors of the region in which the chapter is based. The focus of the chapters is also framed within the key methodologies of the researchers that have focused their attention in those regions. For example, field surveying is core to Australian studies (Chapter 14 by Kennedy 2014) while hydrodynamic modelling and cosmogenic dating has characterized Japanese (Chapter 12 by Sunamura et al. 2014) and Korean (Chapter 11 by Choi & Seong 2014) work, respectively. For the British Isles the breadth and depth of information has meant that separate chapters are included to cover cliffs (Chapter 3 by Lim 2014), shore platforms (Chapter 4 by Moses 2014) and weathering and biologic processes (Chapter 5 by Coombes 2014). The conclusion of the volume (Chapter 17 by Naylor et al. 2014) seeks to identify and synthesize the key messages emerging from the volume and to identify future research needs.

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cover image Geological Society, London, Memoirs
Geological Society, London, Memoirs
Volume 4019 August 2014
Pages: 1 - 5

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Published online: 25 July 2014
Published: 19 August 2014

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David M. Kennedy* [email protected]
Department of Resource Management and Geography, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia
Wayne J. Stephenson
Department of Geography, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand
Larissa A. Naylor
School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, University Avenue, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

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