Rugged coastline of the West Coast Region of New Zealand

The coast, also known as the coastline or seashore, is defined as the area where land meets the sea or ocean,[1] or as a line that forms the boundary between the land and the ocean or a lake.[2] Around 620,000 kilometres (390,000 mi) of coastline are on Earth. Because of the coastline paradox, a coastline's exact perimeter cannot be determined.

The term coastal zone is used to refer to a region where interactions of sea and land processes occur.[3] Both the terms coast and coastal are often used to describe a geographic location or region located on a coastline (e.g., New Zealand's West Coast, or the East and West Coasts of the United States).

The term pelagic coast refers to a coast that fronts on the open ocean, as opposed to a more sheltered coast in a gulf or bay. A shore, on the other hand, can refer to parts of land adjoining any large body of water, including oceans (seashore) and lakes (lake shore). Similarly, the somewhat related term stream bed or stream bank refers to the land alongside or sloping down to a river (riverbank) or body of water smaller than a lake. Bank is also used in some parts of the world to refer to an artificial ridge of earth intended to retain the water of a river or pond; in other places this may be called a levee.

While there is general agreement in the scientific community regarding the definition of a coast, in the political sphere, the delineation of the extents of a coast differ according to jurisdiction. Government authorities in various countries may define coast differently for economic and social policy reasons. According to the UN atlas, 44% of all people live within 150 km (93 mi) of the sea.[4]


Atlantic rocky coastline, showing a surf area. Porto Covo, west coast of Portugal

Tides often determine the range over which sediment is deposited or eroded. Areas with high tidal ranges allow waves to reach farther up the shore, and areas with lower tidal ranges produce deposition at a smaller elevation interval. The tidal range is influenced by the size and shape of the coastline. Tides do not typically cause erosion by themselves; however, tidal bores can erode as the waves surge up river estuaries from the ocean.[5]

Waves erode coastline as they break on shore releasing their energy; the larger the wave the more energy it releases and the more sediment it moves. Coastlines with longer shores have more room for the waves to disperse their energy, while coasts with cliffs and short shore faces give little room for the wave energy to be dispersed. In these areas the wave energy breaking against the cliffs is higher, and air and water are compressed into cracks in the rock, forcing the rock apart, breaking it down. Sediment deposited by waves comes from eroded cliff faces and is moved along the coastline by the waves. This forms an abrasion or cliffed coast.

Sediment deposited by rivers is the dominant influence on the amount of sediment located on a coastline.[6] Today riverine deposition at the coast is often blocked by dams and other human regulatory devices, which remove the sediment from the stream by causing it to be deposited inland.

Like the ocean which shapes them, coasts are a dynamic environment with constant change. The Earth's natural processes, particularly sea level rises, waves and various weather phenomena, have resulted in the erosion, accretion and reshaping of coasts as well as flooding and creation of continental shelves and drowned river valleys (rias).

Environmental importance

Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa.[7]

Coasts and their adjacent areas on and off shore are an important part of a local ecosystem. The mixture of fresh water and salt water (brackish water) in estuaries provides many nutrients for marine life. Salt marshes and beaches also support a diversity of plants, animals and insects crucial to the food chain.

The high level of biodiversity creates a high level of biological activity, which has attracted human activity for thousands of years.

Coasts also create essential material for organisms to live by, including estuaries, wetland, seagrass, coral reefs, and mangroves. They support 85 percent of U.S. migratory birds. Coasts also provide a habitat for sea turtles, marine mammals, and coral reefs.[8]

Human impacts

Human uses of coasts

The Coastal Hazard Wheel system published by UNEP for global coastal management

More and more of the world's people live in coastal regions.[9] Many major cities are on or near good harbors and have port facilities. Some landlocked places have achieved port status by building canals.

Nations defend their coasts against military invaders, smugglers and illegal migrants. Fixed coastal defenses have long been erected in many nations, and coastal countries typically have a navy and some form of coast guard.

Coasts, especially those with beaches and warm water, attract tourists. In many island nations such as those of the Mediterranean, South Pacific and Caribbean, tourism is central to the economy. Coasts offer recreational activities such as swimming, fishing, surfing, boating, and sunbathing. Growth management can be a challenge for coastal local authorities who often struggle to provide the infrastructure required by new residents.

Threats to a coast

Coasts also face many human-induced environmental impacts. The human influence on climate change is thought to contribute to an accelerated trend in sea level rise which threatens coastal habitats.

Pollution can occur from a number of sources: garbage and industrial debris; the transportation of petroleum in tankers, increasing the probability of large oil spills; small oil spills created by large and small vessels, which flush bilge water into the ocean.

Fishing has declined due to habitat degradation, overfishing, trawling, bycatch and climate change. Since the growth of global fishing enterprises after the 1950s, intensive fishing has spread from a few concentrated areas to encompass nearly all fisheries. The scraping of the ocean floor in bottom dragging is devastating to coral, sponges and other long-lived species that do not recover quickly. This destruction alters the functioning of the ecosystem and can permanently alter species' composition and biodiversity. Bycatch, the capture of unintended species in the course of fishing, is typically returned to the ocean only to die from injuries or exposure. Bycatch represents about a quarter of all marine catch. In the case of shrimp capture, the bycatch is five times larger than the shrimp caught.

It is believed that melting Arctic ice will cause sea levels to rise and flood coastal areas.


Extraordinary population growth in the 21st century has placed stress on the planet's ecosystems. For example, on Saint Lucia, harvesting mangrove for timber and clearing for fishing reduced the mangrove forests, resulting in a loss of habitat and spawning grounds for marine life that was unique to the area. These forests also helped to stabilize the coastline. Conservation efforts since the 1980s have partially restored the ecosystem.


Emergent coastline

According to one principle of classification, an emergent coastline is a coastline which has experienced a fall in sea level, because of either a global sea level change, or local uplift. Emergent coastlines are identifiable by the coastal landforms, which are above the high tide mark, such as raised beaches. In contrast, a submergent coastline is one where the sea level has risen, due to a global sea level change, local subsidence, or isostatic rebound. Submergent coastlines are identifiable by their submerged, or "drowned" landforms, such as rias (drowned valleys) and fjords.

Concordant coastline

According to a second principle of classification, a concordant coastline is a coastline where bands of different rock types run parallel to the shore. These rock types are usually of varying resistance, so the coastline forms distinctive landforms, such as coves. Discordant coastlines feature distinctive landforms because the rocks are eroded by ocean waves. The less resistant rocks erode faster, creating inlets or bay; the more resistant rocks erode more slowly, remaining as headlands or outcroppings.

Other coastal categories

  • A cliffed coast or abrasion coast is one where marine action has produced steep declivities known as cliffs.
  • A flat coast is one where the land gradually descends into the sea.
  • A

    The following articles describe some coastal landforms:

    Coastal landforms. The feature shown here as a bay would, in certain (mainly southern) parts of Britain, be called a cove. That between the cuspate foreland and the tombolo is a British bay.

    Cliff erosion

    • Much of the sediment deposited along a coast is the result of erosion of a surrounding cliff, or bluff. Sea cliffs retreat landward because of the constant undercutting of slopes by waves. If the slope/cliff being undercut is made of unconsolidated sediment it will erode at a much faster rate then a cliff made of bedrock.[6]
    • A natural arch is formed when a headland is eroded through by waves.
    • Sea caves are made when certain rock beds are more susceptible to erosion than the surrounding rock beds because of different areas of weakness. These areas are eroded at a faster pace creating a hole or crevice that, through time, by means of wave action and erosion, becomes a cave.
    • A stack is formed when a headland is eroded away by wave and wind action.
    • A stump is a shortened sea stack that has been eroded away or fallen because of instability.
    • Wave-cut notches are caused by the undercutting of overhanging slopes which leads to increased stress on cliff material and a greater probability that the slope material will fall. The fallen debris accumulates at the bottom of the cliff and is eventually removed by waves.
    • A

      Coastal features formed by another feature

    Geologic processes

    The following articles describe the various geologic processes that affect a coastal zone: