Until the 1950s, coastal development was undertaken with minimal understanding of natural processes and dramatic/costly hazardous impacts still occur.
Increasing development pressures along the world’s shorelines, coupled with increasing knowledge of coastal processes, have led to legislative controls and design standards which address personal safety, property protection, and preservation of the natural, social and cultural environments.
In New Zealand, the most influential legislation at the present time is the Resource Management Act (1991) and its offshoots: Regional Plans and Policy Statements, District Plans and most importantly the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement. The latter underwent significant revision between 2004 and 2010 and local government implementation is presently very much a work in progress. In addition, legislation and design standards are continually being revised to account for the effects of predicted climate change, of increasing knowledge of coastal processes, and changes in public values toward the environment.
Given the lack of information defining the controlling coastal processes, coupled with the serious consequences of coastal hazards, courts and government officials in particular, are quick to invoke the ‘precautionary principal’. This principal requires decision makers to err on the side of caution when considering development where such uncertainty exists. Official conservatism is also related to the present need to protect aforementioned property developed earlier in the 20th century when sand spits, foredunes and cliffs had proved so alluring for siting dwellings. However, existing residents can react strongly when councils’ propose new development constraints intended to prevent the impact of future potential hazard; typically on the grounds of individual property rights and a perception of lowered property value. The need to reduce uncertainty while providing scientifically robust information is paramount.
In recent decades our understanding of coastal processes has increased, to a great extent due to innovative computer-based analysis. In addition, high quality and longer-term data sets are becoming available for all types of atmospheric, oceanographic and terrestrial systems.
Geomorphological understanding is the cornerstone of assessing a project’s environmental effects, potential coastal hazards and coastal management options. The New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (2010) in particular formally recognises the need for coastal geomorphology in defining the coastal environment, natural character, outstanding landform and landscape assessment, and hazard assessment.
Geomorphology (from Ancient Greek: gê, “earth”; morphḗ, “form”; and lógos, “study”) is the scientific study of the origin and evolution of topographic and bathymetric features created by processes operating at or near the Earth’s surface. Geomorphologists seek to understand why landscapes look the way they do, to understand landform history and dynamics and to predict changes through a combination of field observations, physical experiments and numerical modelling. Coastal geomorphology relates specifically to surface features that are, or have been, subject to coastal processes (driven by wind, waves, tides and associated currents). Sea-level change at time scales up to thousands of years that are associated with climatic and/or tectonic change may extend the effeted region significant distances beyond the current shoreline, as may the migration of sand dunes and the existance of inlets
Choosing your coastal expert
Coastal experts can come from a wide range of backgrounds. These include environmental and civil engineering, landscape architecture, and a range of scientific disciplines such as geography, geology, geophysics and oceanography, along with a further array of specializations including information technology, mathematics and statistics.
In addition, consultants may be attached to a variety of organizations including universities, small specialist companies, or multi-discipline corporations. Yet some of these organisations may lack access to even rudimentary expertise in coastal geomorphology.
The coastal consultant you choose must:
- have the correct specialization(s) for your particular situation or project;
- have demonstrable experience for successfully investigating/carrying out your type of project;
- be able to carry out a geomorphological assessment for your particular site, and
- be aware of the most up to date coastal science, and be able to apply this information to your particular project.