Geological Magazine

Original Article

Contrasting styles of swell-driven coastal erosion: examples from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

A. M. SMITHa1 c1, A. A. MATHERa2, S. C. BUNDYa3, J. A. G. COOPERa4, L. A. GUASTELLAa5, P. J. RAMSAYa6 and A. THERONa7

a1 School of Geological Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 4001, South Africa

a2 Coastal and Catchment Policy, Co-ordination and Management, eThekwini Municipality, P.O. Box 680, Durban, 4000, South Africa

a3 Sustainable Development Projects cc, P.O. Box 1016, Ballito 4420, South Africa

a4 Centre for Coastal and Marine Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Ulster, Cromore Road, Coleraine BT52 1SA, Northern Ireland

a5 Bayworld Centre for Research & Education (BCRE), 5 Riesling Rd, Constantia 7806, South Africa

a6 Marine Geosolutions, 105 Clark Rd, Glenwood, Durban, 4001, South Africa

a7 Coast & Ocean Competency Area, CSIR, P.O. Box 320, Stellenbosch, 7599, South Africa


During 2006–2007, the KwaZulu-Natal coast of South Africa was exposed to several large swell events (Ho > 3 m), near the peak of the lunar nodal cycle, causing shoreline recession. The largest swell (Hs = 8.5 m) struck the coast on the March equinox (18th–20th) and generated a strong storm-return flow. Observations made before, during and after record dramatic coastal erosion (shoreline recession of up to 40 m and substantial property damage). This swell event removed the semi-continuous nearshore bar system and ‘conditioned’ the coast such that lesser subsequent swell events accomplished much greater amounts of coastal erosion than expected (up to 100 m at certain erosion hotspots) because waves reached the coast without significant energy dissipation. Subsequent bar generation rebuilt the inshore bars within six months. The styles of erosion during the March ’07 event and other 2007 swells were markedly different. Lesser swells are focused by headlands and result in megarip development and activation of erosion hotspots. The March ’07 event still-water level was raised (equinoctial spring high tide and a storm surge of 0.33–0.45 m) to a level that rendered most headlands (and erosion hotspots) ineffective and resulted in laterally extensive erosion of soft shorelines. Results record cumulative effects of successive swell events on coastal behaviour that proved to be critical in enabling erosion to proceed at rapid rates after the coast had been initially destabilized. Unlike hurricanes and tsunamis, surges associated with swell events are relatively minor and therefore extensive erosion is linked with high lunar tides. There is circumstantial evidence that swell-induced erosion follows the broad 18.6 yr lunar nodal tidal cycle when the chances of large swells coinciding with high water levels are increased.

(Received December 02 2009)

(Accepted March 02 2010)

(Online publication May 21 2010)


  • coastal erosion;
  • megarip;
  • high swell;
  • disequilibrium coastline;
  • storm-return flow


c1 Author for correspondence: