Sediment Transport

After rocks, sand, and material get eroded from cliffs, they are transported along the coast by the water in the form of sediment. The agents involved in this sediment transport are wave activity, tides, storm surges, nearshore currents, longshore drift, and rip currents.

Sediment Transport Sediment Transport

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Table of contents

    How is sediment transported along the coast?

    Sediment transport along the coast happens in four different ways. These are:

    • Traction. Large pebbles and boulders are rolled along the seafloor.
    • Saltation. Sand-sized material is bounced along the seafloor. Transportation happens via forces from the water or wind. A layer of saltation can often be seen 2-10 centimeters above the beach surface on dry, windy days.
    • Suspension. The waves carry silt and clay. As a result, the sea is often a muddy, brown colour due to the suspended sediment.
    • Solution. Material is dissolved and carried by the water as a solution.

    The role of currents, tides, and drifts in sediment transport

    Let’s look at how currents, tides, and longshore drift affect sediment transport.

    Currents

    Coastal currents are water masses in motion. They are found between the coastline and the edge of the continental shelf. They have two components: alongshore (or parallel to the coast) and cross-shore (or perpendicular to the coast). The currents are driven by winds or initiated by differences in water density, temperature, or salinity. Rip currents on the beach transport sediment a few metres out to sea for a few hours when the wind blows directly onshore.

    Tides

    Tides are changes in the sea level produced by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun. The incoming and ebbing tide can create tidal currents in the nearshore and offshore zones that transport sediment.

    Longshore drift

    Longshore drift, also known as littoral drift, moves material along the shore by wave action. It usually occurs in one direction (based on the wind), and the waves approach the beach at an angle. The swash carries material up and along the beach at an angle of around 45 degrees, while the backwash carries material down the beach at right angles (due to gravity). Over time, this creates a net shift of material along the coast. Longshore drift contributes to the formation of a range of depositional landforms, such as spits and onshore bars.

    A good example of longshore drift is the Holderness Coast, where longshore drift transports material along the length of the coast. At the southern edge, the material is deposited, forming Spurn Point, a coastal spit.

    The connection between erosion and deposition is how the material moves along the beach. Traction, saltation, suspension, and solution are the processes of transportation.

    Sediment transport, longshore drift, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This diagram illustrates the process of longshore drift

    Longshore drift and sediment cells

    Longshore drift plays a critical role in coastal sediment cells and sediment transport. Coasts can be split into sections called sediment cells. For example, the coastline of England and Wales is divided into 11 primary sediment cells, with sub-cells within each primary cell. These cells occur along the coastline and nearshore area, where material movement is mainly self-contained. They are considered a closed coastal sub-system because their boundaries are formed by major headlands or large estuaries, which direct the movement of the sediment within the cell. The sediment is largely recycled within them rather than having significant new inputs or outputs.

    Sediment cells are a dynamic system. This means that sediment is consistently generated in the source region, transported via the transfer region, and deposited in the sink region.

    • Inputs are where sediment is generated (cliffs or eroded sand dunes). It can also come from offshore bars and river systems.
    • Outputs are areas where deposition is dominant.
    • Transfers are areas where longshore drift and offshore currents move sediment along the coast, assisted by drift-aligned beaches and parts of dunes and salt marshes.
    • Although most sediment stays in the cell, changes in wind direction and movements of ocean currents affect some of the sediment under high-energy conditions. This will cause some sediment to move offshore into long-term ocean floor sediment stores.

    Dynamic equilibrium in sediment transport

    Dynamic equilibrium is achieved when sediment inputs from the source are balanced by the amount being deposited in sinks. Consequently, any landforms will remain the same because eroded sediment is carried offshore, which is then re-transported onshore by currents and wind at the source. A storm can interrupt the system’s equilibrium, but over time, it will achieve a balanced state again due to negative feedback.

    • Negative feedback is when the change creates effects that reduce or work against the original change. E.g., when erosion leads to mass movement or block fall, the debris at the bottom of the cliff creates a barrier that will reduce or stop the erosion for a time.
    • Positive feedback is when the change produces an effect that increases the original change. E.g., when wind erosion of a dune section during storms removes stabilising vegetation.

    Human intervention (in the form of coastal management and the threat of sea-level changes due to global warming) represents a threat to the dynamic equilibrium of sediment cells.

    Sediment transport and coastal deposition

    During sediment transportation, waves sometimes lose energy, and when they do, sediment will drop out and begin to settle. This is known as coastal deposition.

    Deposition is likely to occur when there is little or reduced wind, waves enter an area of shallow water, the swash is greater than the backwash, waves enter a sheltered area (a cove or bay), a river or estuary flowing into the sea reduces wave energy, there is a good supply of material, and the wave energy is unable to transport the amount of material within it.

    Coastal landforms are created when (a) there are lots of constructive waves and (b) the accumulation of sand and shingle is greater than what is removed.

    Coastal deposition is why people notice materials that are different from the surrounding beach material.

    Landforms of coastal deposition

    Let’s see what types of landforms created by coastal deposition exist.

    Beaches

    This is the most frequent temporary depositional feature along the coastline. Deposits of sand, shingle, pebbles, mud, and silt found in the foreshore and backshore form beaches. This happens because the swash is stronger than the backwash, so the material moves up the beach. Beaches protect the coast from erosion. Sandy beaches are created in sheltered bays, while waves throwing massive boulders and large pebbles up the beach during storms form storm beaches.

    Bayhead beaches

    Bayhead beaches form along swash-aligned coastlines where wave refraction spreads wave energy around the bay perimeter. Here the waves can break at 90 degrees to the shoreline, moving sediment into a bay and forming a bayhead beach.

    Tombolos

    Tombolos are linear ridges of sand and shingle connecting an offshore island to the mainland coastline. Wave refraction around the island creates an area of calmer water where deposition occurs between the island and the coast. Sometimes oppositional longshore currents are involved, in which case the depositional feature is similar to a spit.

    St Ninian’s tombolo, Shetland, Scotland.

    Sediment transport St Ninian's Isle tombolo, Shetland StudySmarterFig. 2 - St Ninian’s Isle tombolo, Shetland, Scotland

    Spits

    These are unstable, narrow, long stretches of sand exiting into the sea. They are joined to the mainland at one end. Spits form on drift-aligned coastlines where the coastline changes direction due to a bay or a river mouth. Where the spit turns, longshore drift moves material along the coastline. Wave refraction and currents cause the wave’s energy to disperse, which leads to deposition forming on the seabed. Over time, the amount of sediment deposited is exposed, extending the beach into the sea as a spit.

    Three factors determine the length of a spit: secondary currents causing erosion, the flow of a river, and wave action.

    Hurst Castle Spit and Spurn Point on the Holderness Coast, England.

    Double spits

    Double spits are where two spits extend in opposite directions from both sides of the bay towards the middle. Double spits are formed when longshore drift works in different directions on opposite sides of the bay. Rising sea levels, which drive ridges of material onshore from the offshore zone, can also form double spits. A barrier beach driven across a bay creates a bar (Haff coastlines), but a strong exiting river current may breach the bar to form a double spit.

    Poole Harbour in Dorset, England.

    Hooked/Recurved spits

    Hooked/recurved spits are spits with ends that are curved landward, forming a bay or inlet as a result. Wave refraction around the distal end transports and deposits sediment over a short distance in the landward direction. Wind and wavefronts are at an opposite angle to the prevailing wind, generating short periods of longshore drift in the landward direction.

    Cuspate forelands

    Cuspate forelands are low-lying, triangular-shaped headlands extending out from a shoreline formed from deposited sediment. They are created when longshore drift currents from opposite directions meet at the boundary of two sediment cells. Sediment is deposited by both currents, creating a triangular-shaped area. They extend from a few metres to several kilometres.

    Dungeness, Kent. It is 11km long and is formed by west-east meeting north-south longshore drift currents created by swell waves.

    Sediment transport, Diagram showing coastal and oceanic landforms, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Diagram showing coastal and oceanic landforms

    Bars

    A bar is a ridge of sand or shingle that joins two headlands on either side of a bay. It is formed by longshore drift transporting sediment along the coastline. A lagoon, formed by trapped water, is usually created behind the bar.

    Offshore bars

    Offshore bars are ridges of sand or shingle in the offshore zone. They are created from sediment deposited at the offshore and nearshore zone boundary.

    They are also known as breakpoint bars because the offshore/nearshore boundary is where waves begin to break. Occasionally they are exposed by the neap tide (when the tide is at its minimum).

    Sand dunes

    Sand dunes are small ridges of sand found at the top of a beach, beyond the reach of waves. They are created by the wind blowing up the beach. Larger pieces of sediment will rest against obstacles, creating a ridge. At the same time, smaller particles will settle on the far side of the ridge, forming an embryo dune.

    Sediment transport, sand dunes, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Sand dunes are a classic example of sediment transport

    After a while, the pile of material becomes too steep and unstable and collapses, allowing smaller particles to fall down the other side. This continues until a stable angle is achieved (so the sand stops slipping). The sand becomes an obstacle itself, and more dunes may form in front of it through the same process. The stronger the wind, the higher the dunes.

    The material is transported in the following ways:

    • Suspension is when sand is picked up and carried within the wind. Approximately 1% of the movement of sand is carried in this way.
    • Saltation is when grains of sand bounce along the beach as they are picked up and dropped by the wind. 95% of sand movement results from saltation.
    • Creep is when sand grains collide and push each other along other grains. 4% of transportation is by creep.

    There are different types of sand dunes – their name depends on their stage of development and position on the beach.

    • Embryo dunes are found on the upper beach, where the sand accumulates around small obstacles.
    • Foredunes are the older and slightly higher dunes. As the dune grows, vegetation may develop on the upper and back surfaces, and this will help to stabilise the dune.
    • Grey dunes. As vegetation dies, sand develops in the soil with lots of moisture and nutrients, enabling more varied plant growth.
    • Dune slack. When the water table rises closer to the surface or when water is trapped between dunes during storms, moisture-loving plants (willow grass) grow.
    • Mature dune. Sandy soils develop due to better nutrient content, encouraging less brackish plants to thrive. Trees begin to grow (willow, birch, oak trees), creating coastal woodland, making a natural windbreak to the mainland behind.

    Salt Marsh

    A salt marsh is also a coastal salt marsh or tidal marsh. It is located in a sheltered part of the coastline between the land and open saltwater or brackish water, which is regularly flooded by tides. Here, mud and silt can be deposited at a greater rate than transportation due to the waves’ lack of energy. Often salt marshes are found on the inside of a coastal spit.

    Vegetation plays a very significant role in stabilising depositional landforms. Salt marshes and sand dunes

    bind the loose sediment, encouraging further deposition.

    Sediment Transportation - Key takeaways

    • The agents involved in sediment transport are wave activity, tides, storm surges, nearshore currents, longshore drift, and rip currents.
    • The primary process of sediment transport happens in four different ways: traction, saltation, suspension, and solution.
    • The movement of material along the shore by wave action is called longshore drift, which is also known as littoral drift.
    • Coastal deposition landforms occur where the accumulation of sand and shingle is greater than what is removed.
    • Depositional coastal features include beaches, bayhead beaches, tombolos, spits, double spits, hooked/recurved spits, cuspate forelands, bars, offshore bars, sand dunes, and salt marshes.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sediment Transport

    What are the four transportation methods of sediment transport?

    Sediment transport along the coast happens in four different ways: traction, saltation, suspension, and solution.

     How is sediment transported?

    Sediment is carried by the waves, tides, currents, longshore drift, and rip currents along the coastline. 

    What are some examples of sediment transport?

    After rocks, sand, and material get eroded from cliffs, they are transported along the coast by the water in the form of sediment. The agents involved in this sediment transport are wave activity, tides, storm surges, nearshore currents, longshore drift, and rip currents.

    What is the movement of sediments called?

    Longshore drift, also known as littoral drift, moves material along the shore by wave action. It usually occurs in one direction (based on the wind), and the waves approach the beach at an angle. The swash carries material up and along the beach at an angle of around 45 degrees, while the backwash carries material down the beach at right angles (due to gravity). Over time, this creates a net shift of material along the coast. Longshore drift contributes to the formation of a range of depositional landforms, such as spits and onshore bars.

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