The coast, also known as the coastline or seashore, is defined as the area where land meets the ocean,[1] or as a line that forms the boundary between the land and the coastline.[2] The Earth has around 620,000 kilometres (390,000 mi) of coastline. Coasts are important zones in natural ecosystems, often home to a wide range of biodiversity. On land, they harbor important ecosystems such as freshwater or estuarine wetlands, which are important for bird populations and other terrestrial animals. In wave-protected areas they harbor saltmarshes, mangroves or seagrasses, all of which can provide nursery habitat for finfish, shellfish, and other aquatic species.[3][4] Rocky shores are usually found along exposed coasts and provide habitat for a wide range of sessile animals (e.g. mussels, starfish, barnacles) and various kinds of seaweeds. Along tropical coasts with clear, nutrient-poor water, coral reefs can often be found between depths of 1–50 meters (3.3–164.0 feet).

Sunrise on the Jersey Shore coastline at Spring Lake, New Jersey, U.S.
Rugged coastline of the West Coast Region of New Zealand
Southeast coast of Greenland

According to a United Nations atlas, 44% of all people live within 5 km (3.3mi) of the sea.[5] Because of their importance in society and high concentration of population, the coast is important for major parts of the global food and economic system, and they provide many ecosystem services to humankind. For example, important human activities happen in port cities. Coastal fisheries (commercial, recreational, and subsistence) and aquaculture are major economic activities and create jobs, livelihoods, and protein for the majority of coastal human populations. Other coastal spaces like beaches and seaside resorts generate large revenues through tourism. Marine coastal ecosystems can also provide protection against sea level rise and tsunamis. In many countries, mangroves are the primary source of wood for fuel (e.g. charcoal) and building material. Coastal ecosystems like mangroves and seagrasses have a much higher capacity for carbon sequestration than many terrestrial ecosystems, and as such can play a critical role in the near-future to help mitigate climate change effects by uptake of atmospheric anthropogenic carbon dioxide.

However, the economic importance of coasts makes many of these communities vulnerable to climate change, which causes increases in extreme weather and sea level rise, and related issues such as coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and coastal flooding.[6] Other coastal issues, such as marine pollution, marine debris, coastal development, and marine ecosystem destruction, further complicate the human uses of the coast and threaten coastal ecosystems.[6] The interactive effects of climate change, habitat destruction, overfishing and water pollution (especially eutrophication) have led to the demise of coastal ecosystem around the globe. This has resulted in population collapse of fisheries stocks, loss of biodiversity, increased invasion of alien species, and loss of healthy habitats. International attention to these issues has been captured in Sustainable Development Goal 14 "Life Below Water" which sets goals for international policy focused on preserving marine coastal ecosystems and supporting more sustainable economic practices for coastal communities.[7] Likewise, the United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, but restoration of coastal ecosystems has received insufficient attention.[8]

Because coasts are constantly changing, a coastline's exact perimeter cannot be determined; this measurement challenge is called the coastline paradox. The term coastal zone is used to refer to a region where interactions of sea and land processes occur.[9] 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, West, and Gulf Coast of the United States.) Coasts with a narrow continental shelf that are close to the open ocean are called pelagic coast, while other coasts are more sheltered coast in a gulf or bay. A shore, on the other hand, may refer to parts of land adjoining any large body of water, including oceans (sea shore) and lakes (lake shore).


Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa.[10]

The Earth has approximately 620,000 kilometres (390,000 mi) of coastline. Coastal habitats, which extend to the margins of the continental shelves, make up about 7 percent of the Earth's oceans,[11] but at least 85% of commercially harvested fish depend on coastal environments during at least part of their life cycle.[12] As of October 2010, about 2.86% of exclusive economic zones were part of marine protected areas.[13]

The definition of coasts varies. Marine scientists think of the "wet" (aquatic or intertidal) vegetated habitats as being coastal ecosystems (including seagrass, salt marsh etc.) whilst some terrestrial scientist might only think of coastal ecosystems as purely terrestrial plants that live close to the seashore (see also estuaries and coastal ecosystems).

While there is general agreement in the scientific community regarding the definition of 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.

Exact length of coastline

The coastline paradox is the counterintuitive observation that the coastline of a landmass does not have a well-defined length. This results from the fractal curve-like properties of coastlines; i.e., the fact that a coastline typically has a fractal dimension. Although the "paradox of length" was previously noted by Hugo Steinhaus,[14] the first systematic study of this phenomenon was by Lewis Fry Richardson,[15][16] and it was expanded upon by Benoit Mandelbrot.[17][18]

The measured length of the coastline depends on the method used to measure it and the degree of cartographic generalization. Since a landmass has features at all scales, from hundreds of kilometers in size to tiny fractions of a millimeter and below, there is no obvious size of the smallest feature that should be taken into consideration when measuring, and hence no single well-defined perimeter to the landmass. Various approximations exist when specific assumptions are made about minimum feature size.


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 the river estuaries from the ocean.[19]:421

Geologists classify coasts on the basis of tidal range into macrotidal coasts with a tidal range greater than 4 m (13 ft); mesotidal coasts with a tidal range of 2 to 4 m (6.6 to 13 ft); and microtidal coasts with a tidal range of less than 2 m (7 ft). The distinction between macrotidal and mesotidal coasts is more important. Macrotidal coasts lack barrier islands and lagoons, and are characterized by funnel-shaped estuaries containing sand ridges aligned with tidal currents. Wave action is much more important for determining bedforms of sediments deposited along mesotidal and microtidal coasts than in macrotidal coasts.[20]

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 in the case of coastlines that have estuaries.[21] 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. Coral reefs are a provider of sediment for coastlines of tropical islands.[22]

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).

Importance for humans and ecosystems

Human settlements

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

More and more of the world's people live in coastal regions.[23] According to a United Nations atlas, 44% of all people live within 150 km (93 mi) of the sea.[5] 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 often leading to the development of seaside resort communities. In many island nations such as those of the Mediterranean, South Pacific Ocean and Caribbean, tourism is central to the economy. Coasts offer recreational activities such as swimming, fishing, surfing, boating, and sunbathing.

Growth management and coastal management can be a challenge for coastal local authorities who often struggle to provide the infrastructure required by new residents, and poor management practices of construction often leave these communities and infrastructure vulnerable to processes like coastal erosion and sea level rise. In many of these communities, management practices such as beach nourishment or when the coastal infrastructure is no longer financially sustainable, managed retreat to remove communities from the coast.

Ecosystem services

Estuarine and marine coastal ecosystems are both marine ecosystems. Together, these ecosystems perform the four categories of ecosystem services in a variety of ways: "Regulating services" include climate regulation as well as waste treatment and disease regulation and buffer zones. The "provisioning services" include forest products, marine products, fresh water, raw materials, biochemical and genetic resources. "Cultural services" of coastal ecosystems include inspirational aspects, recreation and tourism, science and education. "Supporting services" of coastal ecosystems include nutrient cycling, biologically mediated habitats and primary production.

Coasts and their adjacent areas on and offshore 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, mangroves 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. Coasts provide habitats for migratory birds, sea turtles, marine mammals, and coral reefs.[24]


Emergent coastline

According to one principle of classification, an emergent coastline is a coastline that 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 the 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 the 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 graded shoreline is one where wind and water action has produced a flat and straight coastline.


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 than a cliff made of bedrock.[21]
  • 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 wave-cut platform forms after erosion and retreat of a sea cliff has been occurring for a long time. Gently sloping wave-cut platforms develop early on in the first stages of cliff retreat. Later, the length of the platform decreases because the waves lose their energy as they break further offshore.[21]

Coastal features formed by sediment

Coastal features formed by another feature

Other features on the coast

Coastal waters

Overview of different zones of coastal waters: Input, production, transport and storage pathway of carbon in marine waters, including movement across maritime zones of national jurisdiction: territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), continental shelf, high seas (international waters), and deep seabed.

"Coastal waters" (or "coastal seas") is a rather general term used differently in different contexts, ranging geographically from the waters within a few kilometers of the coast, through to the entire continental shelf which may stretch for more than a hundred kilometers from land.[25] Thus the term coastal waters is used in a slightly different way in discussions of legal and economic boundaries[26] (see territorial waters and international waters) or when considering the geography of coastal landforms or the ecological systems operating through the continental shelf (marine coastal ecosystems). The research on coastal waters often divides into these separate areas too.

The dynamic fluid nature of the ocean means that all components of the whole ocean system are ultimately connected, although certain regional classifications are useful and relevant. The waters of the continental shelves represent such a region.[27] The term “coastal waters” has been used in a wide variety of different ways in different contexts. In European Union environmental management it extends from the coast to just a few nautical miles[28] while in the United States the US EPA considers this region to extend much further offshore.[29][30]

"Coastal waters" has specific meanings in the context of commercial coastal shipping, and somewhat different meanings in the context of naval littoral warfare. Oceanographers and marine biologists have yet other takes. Coastal waters have a wide range of marine habitats from enclosed estuaries to the open waters of the continental shelf.

Similarly, the term littoral zone has no single definition. It is the part of a sea, lake, or river that is close to the shore.[31] In coastal environments, the littoral zone extends from the high water mark, which is rarely inundated, to shoreline areas that are permanently submerged.

Coastal waters can be threatened by coastal eutrophication and harmful algal blooms.[32][33][34]

In geology

The identification of bodies of rock formed from sediments deposited in shoreline and nearshore environments (shoreline and nearshore facies) is extremely important to geologists. These provide vital clues for reconstructing the geography of ancient continents (paleogeography). The locations of these beds show the extent of ancient seas at particular points in geological time, and provide clues to the magnitudes of tides in the distant past.[35]

Sediments deposited in the shoreface are preserved as lenses of sandstone in which the upper part of the sandstone is coarser than the lower part (a coarsening upwards sequence). Geologists refer to these are parasequences. Each records an episode of retreat of the ocean from the shoreline over a period of 10,000 to 1,000,000 years. These often show laminations reflecting various kinds of tidal cycles.[35]

Some of the best-studied shoreline deposits in the world are found along the former western shore of the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow sea that flooded central North America during the late Cretaceous Period (about 100 to 66 million years ago). These are beautifully exposed along the Book Cliffs of Utah and Colorado.[36]

Geologic processes

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



Larger animals that live in coastal areas include puffins, sea turtles and rockhopper penguins, among many others. Sea snails and various kinds of barnacles live on rocky coasts and scavenge on food deposited by the sea. Some coastal animals are used to humans in developed areas, such as dolphins and seagulls who eat food thrown for them by tourists. Since the coastal areas are all part of the littoral zone, there is a profusion of marine life found just off-coast, including sessile animals such as corals, sponges, starfish, mussels, seaweeds, fishes, and sea anemones.

There are many kinds of seabirds on various coasts. These include pelicans and cormorants, who join up with terns and oystercatchers to forage for fish and shellfish. There are sea lions on the coast of Wales and other countries.

Coastal fish

Schooling threadfin, a coastal species

Coastal fish, also called inshore fish or neritic fish, inhabit the sea between the shoreline and the edge of the continental shelf. Since the continental shelf is usually less than 200 metres (660 ft) deep, it follows that pelagic coastal fish are generally epipelagic fish, inhabiting the sunlit epipelagic zone.[37] Coastal fish can be contrasted with oceanic fish or offshore fish, which inhabit the deep seas beyond the continental shelves.

Coastal fish are the most abundant in the world.[38] They can be found in tidal pools, fjords and estuaries, near sandy shores and rocky coastlines, around coral reefs and on or above the continental shelf. Coastal fish include forage fish and the predator fish that feed on them. Forage fish thrive in inshore waters where high productivity results from upwelling and shoreline run off of nutrients. Some are partial residents that spawn in streams, estuaries and bays, but most complete their life cycles in the zone.[38]


Many coastal areas are famous for their kelp beds. Kelp is a fast-growing seaweed that can grow up to half a meter a day in ideal conditions. Mangroves, seagrasses, macroalgal beds, and salt marsh are important coastal vegetation types in tropical and temperate environments respectively.[3][4] Restinga is another type of coastal vegetation.


Coasts also face many human-induced environmental impacts and coastal development hazards. The most important ones are:


A settled coastline in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Once a fishing port, the harbor is now dedicated to tourism and pleasure boating. Observe that the sand and rocks have been darkened by oil slick up to the high-water line.
This stretch of coast in Tanzania's capital Dar es Salaam serves as a public waste dump.
Dead zones occur when phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers cause excessive growth of microorganisms, which depletes oxygen and kills fauna.

The pollution of coastlines is connected to marine pollution which can occur from a number of sources: Marine debris (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.

Marine pollution

Marine pollution occurs when substances used or spread by humans, such as industrial, agricultural and residential waste, particles, noise, excess carbon dioxide or invasive organisms enter the ocean and cause harmful effects there. The majority of this waste (80%) comes from land-based activity, although marine transportation significantly contributes as well.[39] Since most inputs come from land, either via the rivers, sewage or the atmosphere, it means that continental shelves are more vulnerable to pollution. Air pollution is also a contributing factor by carrying off iron, carbonic acid, nitrogen, silicon, sulfur, pesticides or dust particles into the ocean.[40] The pollution often comes from nonpoint sources such as agricultural runoff, wind-blown debris, and dust. These nonpoint sources are largely due to runoff that enters the ocean through rivers, but wind-blown debris and dust can also play a role, as these pollutants can settle into waterways and oceans.[41] Pathways of pollution include direct discharge, land runoff, ship pollution, atmospheric pollution and, potentially, deep sea mining.

The types of marine pollution can be grouped as pollution from marine debris, plastic pollution, including microplastics, ocean acidification, nutrient pollution, toxins and underwater noise. Plastic pollution in the ocean is a type of marine pollution by plastics, ranging in size from large original material such as bottles and bags, down to microplastics formed from the fragmentation of plastic material. Marine debris is mainly discarded human rubbish which floats on, or is suspended in the ocean. Plastic pollution is harmful to marine life.

Marine debris

Marine debris, also known as marine litter, is human-created waste that has deliberately or accidentally been released in a sea or ocean. Floating oceanic debris tends to accumulate at the center of gyres and on coastlines, frequently washing aground, when it is known as beach litter or tidewrack. Deliberate disposal of wastes at sea is called ocean dumping. Naturally occurring debris, such as driftwood and drift seeds, are also present. With the increasing use of plastic, human influence has become an issue as many types of (petrochemical) plastics do not biodegrade quickly, as would natural or organic materials.[42] The largest single type of plastic pollution (~10 %) and majority of large plastic in the oceans is discarded and lost nets from the fishing industry.[43] Waterborne plastic poses a serious threat to fish, seabirds, marine reptiles, and marine mammals, as well as to boats and coasts.[44]

Dumping, container spillages, litter washed into storm drains and waterways and wind-blown landfill waste all contribute to this problem. This increased water pollution has caused serious negative effects such as discarded fishing nets capturing animals, concentration of plastic debris in massive marine garbage patches, and increasing concentrations of contaminants in the food chain.


A growing concern regarding plastic pollution in the marine ecosystem is the use of microplastics. Microplastics are beads of plastic less than 5 millimeters wide,[45] and they are commonly found in hand soaps, face cleansers, and other exfoliators. When these products are used, the microplastics go through the water filtration system and into the ocean, but because of their small size they are likely to escape capture by the preliminary treatment screens on wastewater plants.[46] These beads are harmful to the organisms in the ocean, especially filter feeders, because they can easily ingest the plastic and become sick. The microplastics are such a concern because it is difficult to clean them up due to their size, so humans can try to avoid using these harmful plastics by purchasing products that use environmentally safe exfoliates.

Because plastic is so widely used across the planet, microplastics have become widespread in the marine environment. For example, microplastics can be found on sandy beaches[47] and surface waters[48] as well as in the water column and deep sea sediment. Microplastics are also found within the many other types of marine particles such as dead biological material (tissue and shells) and some soil particles (blown in by wind and carried to the ocean by rivers). Upon reaching marine environments, the fate of microplastics is subject to naturally occurring drivers, such as winds and surface oceanic currents. Numerical models are able to trace small plastic debris (micro- and meso-plastics) drifting in the ocean,[49] thus predicting their fate.

Sea level rise due to climate change

Between 1901 and 2018, the globally averaged sea level rose by 15–25 cm (6–10 in), or 1–2 mm per year on average.[50] This rate is accelerating, and the sea levels are now rising by 3.7 mm (0.146 inches) per year.[51] This is caused by human-induced climate change, as it continually heats (and therefore expands) the ocean and melts land-based ice sheets and glaciers.[52] Over the period between 1993 and 2018, the thermal expansion of water contributed 42% to sea level rise (sometimes abbreviated as SLR in the scientific literature); melting of temperate glaciers, 21%; Greenland, 15%; and Antarctica, 8%.[53]:1576 Because sea level rise lags changes in Earth temperature, it will continue to accelerate between now and 2050 purely in response to warming which has already occurred:[54] whether it continues to accelerate after that is dependent on the human greenhouse gas emissions. Even if sea level rise does not accelerate, it will continue for a very long time: over the next 2000 years, it is projected to amount to 2–3 m (7–10 ft) if global warming is limited to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F), to 2–6 m (7–20 ft) if it peaks at 2 °C (3.6 °F) and to 19–22 metres (62–72 ft) if it peaks at 5 °C (9.0 °F).[51]:21

The rising seas pose both a direct risk of flooding unprotected areas and indirect threats of higher storm surges, king tides, and tsunamis (particularly in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans). They are also associated with the highly detrimental second-order effects such as the loss of coastal ecosystems like mangroves, losses in crop production due to freshwater salinization of groundwater and irrigation water or the disruption of sea trade due to damaged ports.[55][56][57] Globally, just the projected sea level rise by 2050 will expose places currently inhabited by tens of millions of people to annual flooding, or force them under the water line during high tide, and this can increase to hundreds of millions in the latter decades of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced drastically.[58] While modest increases in sea level are likely to be offset when cities adapt by constructing sea walls or through relocating people,[59] many coastal areas have large population growth, which results in more people at risk from sea level rise. Later in the century, millions of people will be affected in cities such as Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka and Shanghai under the warming of 3 °C (5.4 °F), which is close to the current trajectory.[57][60]

Global goals

International attention to address the threats of coasts has been captured in Sustainable Development Goal 14 "Life Below Water" which sets goals for international policy focused on preserving marine coastal ecosystems and supporting more sustainable economic practices for coastal communities.[7] Likewise, the United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, but restoration of coastal ecosystems has received insufficient attention.[8]

See also


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