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The World's Beaches: A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline

The World's Beaches: A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline

by Orrin H. Pilkey, James Andrew Graham Cooper, Joseph T. Kelley, William J. Neal

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Take this book to the beach; it will open up a whole new world. Illustrated throughout with color photographs, maps, and graphics, it explores one of the planet’s most dynamic environments—from tourist beaches to Arctic beaches strewn with ice chunks to steaming hot tropical shores. The World’s Beaches tells how beaches work, explains why


Take this book to the beach; it will open up a whole new world. Illustrated throughout with color photographs, maps, and graphics, it explores one of the planet’s most dynamic environments—from tourist beaches to Arctic beaches strewn with ice chunks to steaming hot tropical shores. The World’s Beaches tells how beaches work, explains why they vary so much, and shows how dramatic changes can occur on them in a matter of hours. It discusses tides, waves, and wind; the patterns of dunes, washover fans, and wrack lines; and the shape of berms, bars, shell lags, cusps, ripples, and blisters. What is the world’s longest beach? Why do some beaches sing when you walk on them? Why do some have dark rings on their surface and tiny holes scattered far and wide? This fascinating, comprehensive guide also considers the future of beaches, and explains how extensively people have affected them—from coastal engineering to pollution, oil spills, and rising sea levels.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times

“A comprehensive, readable guide to the physical features of many kinds of beaches and some of the threats they face.”
Scienceblogs.com/The Guardian

“A well-illustrated introduction to the geology and ecology of beaches.”
Choice - PR Pinet

“If one wonders how beach systems work and cares about the future, then this is the book to own, read, and share.”
Reference & Research Book News / Scitech Book News

“This book has a wide appeal. . . . Written in an engaging style.”

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
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Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

The World's Beaches

By Orrin H. Pilkey, William J. Neal, Joseph T. Kelley, J. Andrew G. Cooper


Copyright © 2011 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94894-5



Beaches are a treasure—cherished by most, exploited by some, enjoyed by all. Beaches are places for recreation, contemplation, renewal and rejuvenation, communing with nature, and sometimes, while staring out to sea, thinking about our place in the universe. On beaches we swim, surf, fish, jog, stroll, or just lose ourselves in the wonder of where the land meets the sea. Yet for all of our interaction with beaches, few of us understand them: why they are there, how they work, why they show so much variety in form and composition, and why they can undergo dramatic changes in a matter of hours.


Humans have been crossing beaches since the dawn of time, and beaches have been critical to human history and development, as they still are. Unfortunately, much of the history of beaches has to do with invasions, but discovery was also part of the human tide that traversed beaches through history. Julius Caesar landed on Deal Beach near Dover when he invaded Britain in 55 B.C., fifteen hundred or so years before Columbus landed in the New World. In A.D. 1001, Leif Ericksson was the first European to set foot on a beach in Vinland (Newfoundland). King Canute sat on his throne on a beach in 1020 and ordered the tides to come no closer, an early object lesson to demonstrate to his subjects that no man, not even the king, has authority over the sea. The Normans crossed the beach at Hastings, England, in 1066 to defeat the English. The Mongols crossed the beach at today's Fukuoka, Japan, in 1281 to be defeated by the divine wind, a typhoon that destroyed the invasion fleet. The Spanish Armada of 1588 met a similar fate in their attempt to invade England when a great storm blew the surviving ships onto the rocky coasts of the British Isles. Many of the survivors and much debris and treasure washed up on Ireland's beaches. Columbus planted the Spanish flag and a cross in 1492 on the beach at San Salvador in the New World, to the amazement of the natives. In 1519, Hernán Cortés and six hundred of his men crossed the beaches of the Yucatán Peninsula on his way to conquering the Aztec Empire. Australians first met Aborigines on a beach in 1606. In 1619, a Dutch vessel landed twenty slaves on a beach in Chesapeake Bay, marking the beginning of African slavery in America. In 1620, the Pilgrims disembarked in the New World next to a large rock on the beach now known as Plymouth Rock. In 1659, Robinson Crusoe is said to have crawled across the beach on an uninhabited island off the Orinoco River, in northern South America, where he remained for twenty-eight years. The great explorer Captain Cook met natives on the beach in Hawaii (the Sandwich Islands), where they killed him in 1779. And Darwin met naked Patagonians on a cold beach in Tierra del Fuego in 1833.

In 1915, nearly 330,000 total casualties occurred on or very near the beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey, as the Turks beat back the invading Allied forces. Will Rogers died when his plane crashed on takeoff from a beach near Barrow, Alaska, in 1935. And the beach at Dunkirk, France, in 1940 was the scene of the spectacular rescue of the defeated British Expeditionary Force in World War II. In 1944, the direction of the armies reversed as the Allies invaded Europe across the beaches of Anzio, Italy, and then Normandy, France. In the same time interval, beaches across the Pacific were killing fields as the Allies moved against the Japanese, culminating in the atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll, the namesake for the bikini bathing suit, introduced by a Frenchman in 1946. The largest oil spill in history soiled the beaches of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991, when Iraq purposely released oil to frustrate beach landings by U.S. Marines in the Gulf War. In 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico became the largest oil spill ever to occur in North America.


Having been erased by erosion and flooded by the rise in sea level, archaeological sites are less common on today's beaches than they were in the past, but we can guess that early humans used the beach in much the same way as today's third world coastal communities and subsistence cultures do. The beach was their land road, and just as for today's subsistence societies, from the Arctic to the tropics, living next to the beach is living next to one's main source of food. Places near the beach were also dump sites for garbage. Termed "middens" by archaeologists, massive piles of shells are common in many coastal settings near beaches and tidal flats where food resources were common. Today on Bazaruto Island, Mozambique, and in other coastal subsistence societies, local people still contribute to growing shell middens.

From the North Slope of Alaska to the tropical shores of the Pacific in Colombia, beaches continue to be workplaces and storage places for fishing boats, and spaces for net- and fish-drying racks. In the tropics, sea breezes provide relief from the heat and help reduce malarial mosquitoes. The beach itself is a resource for construction material and for whatever bounty the sea delivers. The people of such communities live by the sea by necessity; it is their means of life. With a vista to see who is approaching, a beach provides security. But living next to the beach, particularly on low-lying coasts, presents great risks, as demonstrated by the great tsunami of 2004 that roared across thousands of miles of Indian Ocean beaches and killed 225,000 people—including those who were there by necessity and those who were there by choice.

In contrast to beaches that support subsistence cultures, urbanized shores are mostly characteristic of first world countries. The combination of the shore as a place of commerce and the shore as a place of leisure is probably as old as humankind. The ruins of Roman and Greek villas by the sea attest to a very early resort mentality, whereas ancient Peruvians built massive temples and dug grave sites near their beaches. It was not until the nineteenth century that beaches became a greater focal point for technological and recreational development. In 1801, the first American advertisement for a beach resort (Cape May, New Jersey) appeared in the Philadelphia Aurora. In 1845, the Sanlucar de Barrameda beach horse race began in Spain, and beach horse races in Laytown, Ireland, commenced in 1876. The first successful transatlantic telegraph cable, completed in 1866, crossed the beach at Heart's Content, Newfoundland, in the west, and at Valentia Island, Ireland, in the east. In 1898, gold was mined on the beach at Nome, Alaska. In 1903, the speed of a horseless carriage was timed on the beach at Daytona Beach, Florida. Beginning in 1905, Duke Kahanamoku rejuvenated the Polynesian sport of surfing, which the Hawaiian missionaries had halted earlier for being ungodly. In 1927, the same year that Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis on the beach at Old Orchard Beach, Maine (the airport was fogged in), beach volleyball was introduced to Europe in a French nudist camp. "Beach music" started in 1945. In 1953, Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster made love on a beach (Halona Beach, Hawaii) in From Here to Eternity. The Beach Boys rock band formed in 1961. In 1963, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello starred in the surfing classic Beach Party and in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter, riding horseback on a beach, discovered the ruins of the Statue of Liberty.

From the post–World War II era to the present, coastal resort communities have experienced rapid growth. This time period also has witnessed the greatest losses to both coastal property and, more significantly, the beaches themselves. The 1962 Ash Wednesday storm along the U.S. East Coast caused beach loss so significant, particularly in New Jersey, that it precipitated the U.S. national beach nourishment program. This approach has been widely adopted, leading to many artificial beaches internationally (see chapter 12).


Independent of the fact that beaches have played a significant role in history, these natural systems are quite amazing and unique in their behavior. Beaches are arguably the most flexible and dynamic features in nature. If we did not know better, we might think that beaches are living creatures. They do things that make sense: Beaches protect themselves during storms by hunkering down and flattening, which makes the storm waves dissipate their energy over a broadened surface. If the sea level rises, the beach does not disappear. Instead it moves up and back toward the land, apace with the water-level rise.

Viewed from the air, beaches are the thin line that marks the boundary between terra firma and the great blue expanse of the ocean. This graceful winding line is not fixed; it changes constantly. The line waves back and forth, both landward and seaward, although nowadays the line usually is moving landward by a process called shoreline retreat (also called erosion or migration). It is fair to say that most of the world's beaches are retreating, partly in response to a rising sea level.

The beach changes its shape constantly, whether viewed in cross section or in profile. The alert beach visitor who comes to the shore in different seasons may see large differences. Some changes may occur within a few hours during a storm, and some may manifest over the course of months, as the beach responds to seasonal differences in wave energy. When engineering structures are put in place to hold the shoreline still and protect buildings, the beach behaves quite differently than it does in its natural state. Usually it becomes narrower and over time may even disappear altogether.

Beaches range in color from white, as on the coral beaches of Pacific atolls, to pink in Bermuda, to yellow-brown on southeastern U.S. beaches, to black on volcanic islands. A few beaches have strange colors (see chapter 3); for example, Papakolea Beach, Hawaii, where the mineral olivine is concentrated, has green sand, and Northern Labrador has red beaches, which reflect the color of abundant garnet.

Even smaller features of beaches, those just beneath our feet, change very frequently and rapidly with each breaking wave's swash and backwash, with each gust of wind, with whatever organisms are working on or within the sand. These various beach surface features, referred to as bedforms, give particular character to the beach and are as fascinating as the shells and the flotsam and jetsam that are often the focus of our beachcombing. These features often raise the most questions in terms of what, how, why, and when, as beach aficionados attempt to "read" the beach.

A healthy beach is a dynamic beach, but humans tend to think of beaches as permanent in their location, and they dislike natural features that move about, particularly when people have placed buildings in the path of such movement. In fact, the only real enemy that beaches have is us.

From remote Eskimo villages in Siberia or the barrier island villages in Nigeria, to shoreline urban developments such as the Gold Coast of Australia (with its eighty-five-story beachfront condo) or the endless line of high-rises on Saint Petersburg Beach, Florida, the greatest fear of all beach inhabitants is the landward movement of the beach. On the Gold Coast and on Saint Petersburg Beach, Florida, communities erect seawalls and make artificial beaches to replace the native sand. In Nigeria and Siberia, where less money is available, houses are often moved back from the beach. Ironically, the result is that beaches often remain more pristine in poor societies than in affluent ones.


All of these generalizations about shape, color, surface features, and changes pertain to sandy beaches. Many beaches in the world are made up of sand, but many also consist of gravel (throwing-size pebbles), cobbles (grapefruit-size stones), and even boulders (rocks too big to lift), depending on where the beach material came from. In high, Northern Hemisphere latitudes, many beaches are made of glacial sediment, carried to the site by the now-retreated glaciers. Some rocks on Danish beaches came from Norway, and some material on Irish beaches hails from Scotland, indicating that various beach materials were transported many miles from their original locations. Sand on many beaches originated as rocks that were located hundreds or thousands of miles away and were weathered and transported by rivers. In contrast, the white sand on the beaches of many tropical islands was transported only a few meters from offshore reefs. Some boulder beaches are derived from disintegrating cliffs at the back of the beach, or just "upstream," where the beach connects to an eroding bluff. Gravel beaches also may be derived from concentrations of seashells, coral fragments from offshore reefs, or adjacent streams and rivers that carry mainly gravel. Arctic beaches are commonly gravel.

Sometimes long stretches of shorelines have no real beaches at all but have mudflats instead. Perhaps the most famous such occurrence is the shoreline north of the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. It is along this shoreline that Amazon River in Brazil. It is along this shoreline that Amazon River sediment is transported by waves and currents, and because the river carries very little sand, the "beaches" are broad mudflats, stabilized by mangrove forests, all the way up to Suriname, more than 400 miles away.

Occasionally a beach is virtually hidden from view by logs or seaweed. In Spencer Gulf, Australia, some beaches are completely covered with a thick layer of sea grass washed up from adjacent shallows. In some beaches in northern Brittany, seaweed, formed as a result of overfertilization of nearby farm fields, is sometimes piled a meter deep on local beaches. The rotting seaweed produces toxic gases that have been lethal to animals—not a good recommendation as a tourist hot spot. Beaches off the Mississippi River mouth are covered with plant detritus (salt-marsh straw) from the extensive salt mashes of the delta. So much grass is deposited there that natural gas formed by the breakdown of the organic matter is emitted from holes in the beach.

In remote areas adjacent to the mouths of major rivers, logs and driftwood that float down the rivers virtually cover the beach. At the mouth of the Magdalena River on Colombia's Ca rib be an coast, for example, beaches to the west of the river mouth are hidden from view by the log cover. Abundant logs on the beaches of Oregon and Washington states and British Columbia, Canada, shift without warning as waves strike them and have proven to be hazardous to beach strollers.

Beaches also have been the landing sites for oil spills. The 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, provided the United States with a dramatic wake-up call to the problem. Since then, most spills have come not from oil production areas such as Santa Barbara but from shipwrecks (see chapter 12).


While nature throws up obstacles to our trip along the beach in the form of rocky outcrops, boulders, or mazes of driftwood and fallen trees, the larger accoutrements from human activities also provide obstacles. All sorts of objects cross beaches. In the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of pipelines carrying oil and gas traverse the beaches on their way to refineries and storage facilities. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many telephone and telegraph cables, some transoceanic, angled off to the ocean under the beach sand. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, laid many miles of cable intended to reveal the presence of "enemy" vessels, both on the surface and submerged. One of the listening stations was at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where at least once some mysterious cables appeared on the beach after a storm.

Then there are the artifacts of war. Pillboxes, watchtowers, antisubmarine canon emplacements, antiaircraft batteries, forts, antitank and anti–landing craft structures, and searchlight platforms still abound on the beaches of various combatant countries. Many have fallen into the sea or are stranded on the beach. A few have been made into beach houses; they are perfect for storm-resistant dwellings, but given their low elevations they are unsuitable fortresses in which to ride out coastal storms.


Excerpted from The World's Beaches by Orrin H. Pilkey, William J. Neal, Joseph T. Kelley, J. Andrew G. Cooper. Copyright © 2011 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A comprehensive, readable guide to the physical features of many kinds of beaches and some of the threats they face."—New York Times

"A well-illustrated introduction to the geology and ecology of beaches."—Scienceblogs.com/The Guardian

"If one wonders how beach systems work and cares about the future, then this is the book to own, read, and share."—Choice

"This book has a wide appeal. . . . Written in an engaging style."—Reference & Research Book News / Scitech Book News

Meet the Author

Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences and Director Emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University. He is the author of A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands, among other books. William J. Neal is Emeritus Professor of Geology at Grand Valley State University and coauthor, with Orrin Pilkey, of How to Read a North Carolina Beach: Bubble Holes, Barking Sands, and Rippled Runnels. Joseph T. Kelley is a Professor of Marine Geology at the University of Maine and Chair of the Earth Science Department. He is a co-author with Orrin Pilkey and William Neal of Atlantic Coast Beaches. Andrew Cooper is Professor of Coastal Studies and head of Coastal Research in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.

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