Coastal Evolution, Geomorphic Processes and Sedimentary Records in the Anthropocene

Christopher Gomez, Deirdre E. Hart, Patrick Wassmer, Imai Kenta, Hiroki Matsui, Mariko Shimizu



The question of whether or not we agree with the term Anthropocene becomes inconsequential when examining coastal environments. With few exceptions, anthropogenic encroachment on, and reshaping of, the global coastal zone is evident from space via multiple spectral views. Humans have become one of the dominant agents of coastal system change during the latest part of their relatively short existence, and nowhere is the humanization of coastal landscapes more evident than on islands. Using three island nations characterized by different stages and styles of coastal development – New Zealand, Japan, and Indonesia - we investigate the role of anthropogenic activity in coastal evolution, geomorphology and sediment records. Using field investigations, Geographical Information System (GIS) analyses, and mathematical and conceptual models, we reveals how anthropogenic activity influences processes at multiple time and space scales, with enduring effects. Our first anthropogenic impact investigation focusses on the potential effects of sea level rise (SLR) due to anthropogenic climate change. Using the earthquake-induced land-subsidence experienced in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a relative SLR example (‘Laboratory Christchurch’), evidence shows that coastal settlements are likely to be impacted not only at the shore but further inland via coast- connected waterways, where drainage is impeded due to an increase in the base level of that is the sea. Relative SLR makes it more difficult to evacuate water from subaerial and subsurface hydrosystems, and simulations show that future SLR is also likely to temporarily reduce some rivermouth sediment discharges, creating the potential for accelerated erosion in river-coast interface environments. In addition to flow-on effects from waterways, coastlines themselves have been highly affected by human activity over recent decades to centuries. In Tokyo, the shoreline has undergone artificial progradation, in places by more than 2 km, where concrete has supplanted mudflats, often at elevations above the hinterland of reclaimed areas. In addition to changes in Tokyo’s unconsolidated shores, consolidated coastal cliffs have been modified with the removal of natural talus buffers, again increasing the potential for erosion acceleration. Finally, in our third example, studies of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2011 Tohoku tsunami show that anthropogenic activities and structures play an important role in controlling the erosion and depostion of sediments during extreme events. A chronology of tsunami deposits from the Tohoku coast shows that sedimentary records from tsunami events have become thinner in recent centuries, independent of the incident tsunami wave hydrodynamics, and in relation to increasing levels of coastal plain, shoreline and nearshore development. In light of these multi-scale and multi-process effects, we argue that the Anthropocene is clearly distinguishable from the Holocene in coastal environments due to the significantly stronger signatures of human influence that characterise the former time period.


Anthropocene; Climate Change; Coastal Environment; Maritime Sciences

Full Text:



Allen, J., Davis, C., Giovinazzi, S., Hart, D. E., Cochrane, T., Deam, B., ... & Johnson, L. (2014). Geotechnical & flooding reconnaissance of the 2014 March flood event post 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquake sequence, New Zealand. Report No. GEER035.

Benedet, L., List, J.H. (2008) Evaluation of the physical process controlling beach changes adjacent to nearshore dredge pits. Coastal Engineering Vol. 55, pp. 1224-1236.

Blum, M. D., Roberts, H.H. (2009) Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global sea-level rise. Nature Geosciences 2, pp. 488-491.

Butler, D. R. (1995) Zoogeomorphology: animals as geomorphic agents. Cambridge University Press.

Butler, D. R., Sawyer, C. F. (2012) Introduction to the special issue - zoogeomorphology and ecosystem engineering. Geomorphology Vol. 157, pp. 1-5.

Canterbury Geotechnical Database. (2014) Event Specific Groundwater Surface Elevations, Map Layer CGD0800 – 12 June 2014, retrieved from

Canterbury Geotechnical Database. (2012a) LiDAR and Digital Elevation Models, Map Layer CGD0500 - 23 July 2012, retrieved from

Canterbury Geotechnical Database. (2012b) Vertical Ground Surface Movements, Map Layer CGD0600 - 23 July 2012, retrieved from

Carter, J. (2007) Changes in the Sumner coastline, Pegasus Bay: A Study of Beach variation from 1940 to 2007. Honours Dissertation (Geography), University of Canterbury, available from:

Christchurch City Council. (2016) Report/Decision on Non-notified Resrouce Consent Application RMA92032581 – Land remediation applications to be processed non-notified, Deans Head. (retrieved September 30, 2016).

Crutzen, P. J. Stoermer, E.F. (2000) The ‘Anthropocene’. Global Change Newsletter Vol. 41, pp. 17-18.

Denton, D. N. (1991) Sacramento River gravel restoration progress report. California Department of Water Resources, Ref Bluff, California, January 1991.

Davis, C. A., Giovinazzi, S. Hart, D.E. (2015) Liquefaction Induced Flooding in Christchurch, New Zealand. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering (6ICEGE), 1-4 Nov 2015, Christchurch, New Zealand, 6p.

Gomez, C., Lavigne, F. Lespinasse, N. (2008) New insights of geomorphologic impacts of the December 2004 tsunami through GPR investigation. In Lavigne, F., Paris, R., Hadmoko, D.S. (Eds.). The 2004 Tsunami in North Sumatra, EFEO Jakarta, 300pp.

Gomez, C., Piegay, H. Fremier, A. (2010) Floodplain polygenesis: from Geomorphic construction to Forest patterns. San Francisco, CA, USA: American Geophysical Union 2010 Fall Meeting, 13-19 Dec. 2010.

Gomez, C., Soltanzadeh, I. (2012) Boundary crossing and non-linear theory in earth-system sciences: A proof of concept based on tsunami and post-eruption scenarios on Java Island, Indonesia. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms Vol. 37, pp. 790-796.

Griffiths, G. A., McSaveney, M. J. (1983) Hydrology of a basin with extreme rainfalls – Cropp River, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Science Vol. 26, pp. 293-306.

Hall, K., Lamont, N. (2003) Zoogeomorphology in the Alpine: some observations on abiotic–biotic interactions. Geomorphology Vol. 55(1), pp. 219-234.

Hannah, J., Bell, R.G. (2012) Regional sea level trends in New Zealand. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans 117(C1).

Hart, D.E. (2014) What if Christchurch’s sea levels continue to rise. University of Canterbury ‘What if?’ public seminar series talk. Available from:

Hart, D. E., Byun, D-S. Giovinazzi, S. Hughes, M.W. Gomez, C. (2015) Relative Sea Level Changes on a Seismically Active Urban Coast: Observations from Laboratory Christchurch. Proceedings of the Australasian Coasts & Ports Conference 15-18 Sep 2015, Auckland, New Zealand, 6p.

Hart, D. E., Gomez, C. (2013) Coastal Quakes: Observations and analyses from backyard Christchurch to 21st century coastal megacities. Coastal News Vol. 54, pp. 1-3.

Hart, D. E., Kench, P.S. (2007) Carbonate production of an emergent reef platform, Warraber Island, Torres Strait, Australia. Coral Reefs Vol. 26(1), pp. 53-68.

Hart, D. E., Knight, G.A. (2009) Geographic information system assessment of tsunami vulnerability on a dune coast. Journal of Coastal Research Vol. 25(1), pp. 131-141.

Hooke, J. M., (2007) Complexity, self-organisation and variation in behavior in meandering rivers. Geomorphology Vol. 91, pp. 236-258.

Houben, P., Smith, M. Mautz, B. Strobbe, A. Lang, A. (2012) Asynchronous Holocene colluvial and alluvial aggradation: a matter of hydrosedimentary connectivity. The Holocene Vol. 23, pp. 544-555.

Hudson, B. J. (1980) Anthropogenic Coasts. Geography Vol. 65, pp. 194-202.

Kain, L. C., Gomez, C. Wassmer, P. Hard. D.E. (2014) Truncated dunes as evidence of the 2004 tsunami in North Sumatra and environmental recovery post-tsunami. New Zealand Geographer Vol. 70, pp. 165-178.

Knight, J., Harrison, S. (2013) The impacts of climate change on terrestrial Earth Surface Systems. Nature Climate Change Vol. 3, pp. 24-29.

Kondolf, G. M., Matthews, W.V.G. (1993) Management of coarse sediment in regulated rivers of California, Universiy of California, Davis, Water Resources Center Report 80.

Kondolf, G. M., Podolak, K. (2014) Space and Time Scales in Human-Landscape Systems. Environmental Management Vol. 53, pp. 76-87.

Kowalinski, S., Pons, L.J. Slager, S. (1972) Micromorphological compareson of three soils derived from loess in different climatic regions. Geoderma Vol. 7, pp. 141-158.

Leopold, L. B., Wolman, M.G. Miller, J.P. (1964) Fluvial processes in geomorphology. San Francisco, 522pp.

Liénard, J., Lynn K., Strigul, N. Norris, B.K. Gatziolis, D. Mullarney, J.C. Bryan, K.R. Henderson, S.M. (2016) Efficient three-dimensional reconstruction of aquatic vegetation geometry: Estimating morphological parameters influencing hydrodynamic drag. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science Vol. 178, pp. 77-85.

Lotze, H. K., Lenihan, H.S., Bourque, B.J., Bradbury, R.H., Cooke, R.G., Kay, M.C., Kidwell, S.M., Kirby, M.X., Peterson, C.H., Jackson, J.B. (2006) Depletion, degradation, and recovery potential of estuaries and coastal seas. Science Vol. 312(5781), pp. 1806-1809.

Marsden, I. D., Hart, D.E. Reid, C.M. Gomez, C. (2016) Earthquake disturbances. In: M.J. Kennish (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Estuaries: pp. 207-214. Dordrecht: Springer.

Masselink, G. Gehrels, W.R. (2014) Coastal environments and global change (1st ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Ozesmi, S. L., Bauer, M.E. (2002) Satellite remote sensing of wetlands. Wetlands Ecology and Management Vol. 10(5), pp. 381-402. doi:10.1023/A:1020908432489

Parkinson, C. L. DiGirolamo, N. E. (2016) New visualizations highlight new information on the contrasting Arctic and Antarctic sea-ice trends since the late 1970s. Remote Sensing of Environment Vol. 183, pp. 198-204.

Phillips, J. D., (2009) Changes, perturbations and responses in geomorphic systems. Progress in Physical Geography Vol. 33, pp. 17-30.

Pitlick, J., Wilcock, P. (2001) Relations between streamflow, sediment transport and aquatic habitat in regular rivers. Geomorphic Processes and Riverine Habitat, Water Sciences and Applications Vol. 4, pp. 185-198.

Qu, J. J., Powell, A.M. Siva Kumar, M.V.K. (2013) Satellite-based applications on climate change. Dordrecht, London: Springer.

Rodriguez-Ramirez, A., Morales, J.A. Delgado, I. Cantano, M. (2008) Impact of man on the morphodynamics of the Huelva coast (SW Spain). Journal of Iberian Geology Vol. 34, pp. 313-327.

Rull, V. (2016) The Humanized Earth System (HES). The Holocene Vol. 26, pp. 1513-1516.

Shakesby, R. A., Doerr, S.H. (2006) Wildfire as a hydrological and geomorphological agent. Earth Science Review Vol. 74, pp. 269-307.

Stanley, D. J., Warne, A.G. (1993) Nile Delta: recent geological evolution and human impact. Science Vol. 260, pp. 628-628.

Stoppani, A. (1873) Corso di Geologica. Milano. G. Bernardoni & E.G. Brigola (Eds.).

Syvitski, J. P. M., Saito, Y. (2007) Morphodynamics of deltas under the influence of humans. Global and Plantetary Change Vol. 57, pp. 61-78.

Tarolli, P., Sofia, G. (2016) Human topographic signatures and derived geomorphic processes across landscapes. Geomorphology Vol. 255, pp. 140-161.

Trischler, H. (2016) The Anthropocene. NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, 1-27. doi:10.1007/s00048-016-0146-3.

Tsai, H. M., Clark, E. (2003) Nature‐Society Interactions on Islands: Introduction. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography Vol. 85(4), pp. 187-189.

van Maanen, B., Coco, G. Bryan, K.R. (2015) On the ecogeomorphological feedbacks that control tidal channel network evolution in a sandy mangrove setting. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Science Vol. 471(2180), 20150115.

Walling, D. E. (2006) Human impact on land-ocean sediment transfer by the world’s oceans. Geomorphology Vol. 79, pp. 192-216.

Wang, Q., Jorgensen, S. E., Lu, J.J. Nielsen, S.N., Zhang, J.R. (2013) A model of vegetation dynamics of Spartina alterniflora and Phragmites australis in an expanding estuarine wetland: Biological interactions and sedimentary effects. Ecological Modeling Vol. 250, pp. 195-204.

Wassmer, P., Gomez, C. (2011) Development of the AMS Method for Unconsolidated Sediments, Application to Tsunami deposits, Geomorphologie: Releif Processus et Environnement Vol. 3, pp. 279-290.

Wassmer, P., Gomez, C., Iskandasyaht, T., Lavigne, F., Sartohadi, J. (2015) Contribution of Anisotropy of Magnetic Susceptibility (AMS) to reconstruct flooding characteristics of a 4220 BP tsunami from a thick unconsolidated structureless deposit (Banda Aceh, Sumatra). Frontiers in Earth Science Vol. 3, 40, doi:10.3889/feart.2015.00040.

Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Gałuszka, A., Cearreta, A., Edgeworth, M., Ellis, E. C. (2016) The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science Vol. 351(6269): aad2622. doi:10.1126/science.aad2622.

Wei, W., Mei, X., FDai, Z., Tang, Z. (2016) Recent morphodynamic evolution of the largest uninhibited island in the Yangtze (Changjiang) estuary during 1998-2014: influence of the anthropogenic interference. Continental Shelf Research Vol. 124, pp. 83-94.

Werner, B. T., McNamara, D. E. (2007) Dynamics of coupled human-landscape systems. Geomorphology Vol. 91, pp. 393-407.

Wilkinson, B. H. (2005) Humans as geologic agents: a deep-time perspective. Geology Vol. 33-161.

Wohl, E. (2013) Wilderness is dead: whither critical zone studies and geomorphology in the Anthropocene? Anthropocene Vol. 2, pp. 4-15.

Wolf, D. Seim, A. Faust, D. (2014) Fluvial system response to external forcing and human impact – Late Pleistocene and Holocene fluvial dynamics of the lower Guadalete River in western Andalucia (Spain). Boreas Vol. 43, pp. 422-449.

Woodroffe, C. D., Samosorn, B. Hua, Q. Hart, D.E. (2007) Incremental accretion of a sandy reef island over the past 3000 years indicated by component‐specific radiocarbon dating. Geophysical Research Letters Vol. 34(3), doi 10.1029/2006GL028875.

Article Metrics

Abstract view(s): 381 time(s)
HTML: 321 time(s) PDF: 59 time(s)


  • There are currently no refbacks.