Engineering in the Coastal Environment

Breakwaters protect the shoreline at Colonial National Historic Park, Virginia.

NPS Photo by Steve Simon, 2012.

People love visiting and living near the beach. Over 39% of people living in the U.S. reside in coastal counties directly adjacent to the open ocean, major estuaries, or the Great Lakes. This area makes up less than 10% of land in the US, leading coastal communities to be highly dense and developed (NOAA and US Census Bureau, 2013). Coastal communities usually make an effort to protect their beach homes and businesses through coastal engineering projects designed to dissipate or reflect wave energy, reduce impacts of coastal flooding, or alter the rates of sediment loss. The National Park Service also takes action in 88 ocean and coastal parks to protect vulnerable cultural resources from coastal hazards as well as maintain the functionality of park facilities such as waterways and docks.

Coastal engineering projects historically consisted of either soft structures or hard structures, but now may incorporate natural and nature-based features (NNBF) as well as consider additional options such as redesigning, relocating, or abandoning the resource at risk. The following articles highlight the many forms of coastal engineering:

According to National Park Service management policies, natural coastal processes such as erosion, deposition, and shoreline migration, will be allowed to continue without interference. However, when natural processes interfere with the preservation of cultural resources and park infrastructure (e.g., forts and lighthouses), modifications to coastal dynamics may be necessary. Park managers in coastal parks strive to achieve a balance between the preservation of historic landmarks and the protection of natural ecosystems. The policies that guide NPS consideration and selection coastal engineering strategies are described in Chapter 2 of the Coastal Adaptations Handbook. An understanding of how anthropogenic modifications will alter shoreline environments and park resources (biological and physical) is vital for effective coastal management. That is why the National Park Service has undergone a series of studies documenting the history and impacts of coastal engineering in parks.

Last updated: May 1, 2019


  • Site Index