Different stretches of the coastline can be put into two different categories: high energy coasts and low energy coasts.

Low energy coasts

  • Waves are not powerful (for a significant part of the year)
  • The rate of deposition exceeds the rate of erosion
  • Characteristic landforms include beaches and spits

High energy coasts

  • Waves are powerful (for a significant part of the year)
  • The rate of erosion exceeds the rate of deposition
  • Characteristic landforms include headlands, cliffs and wave-cut platforms

What questions do geographers ask?

You can ask geographical questions about anywhere on the coast. Here are some examples.

Borth beach
Low energy coast. Borth Beach (West Wales) by Brian Spittles / CC BY.
  • What coastal processes are happening here?
  • How does swash and backwash change from the shore to up the beach?
  • How does wave action vary along this length of coast?
Dawlish Warren
Low energy coast. Dawlish Warren (Devon) by A. European / CC BY.
  • How does the sediment budget vary on either side of the spit?
  • To what extent does longshore drift determine the morphology of the spit?
  • Has the beach recovered from the storms of winter 2013/14?

News reports and recent research articles provide interesting themes around which you can ask geographical questions. Here are a few examples.

What geographical questions could you investigate by fieldwork?

Here are some examples. Each research question has been split into 2 or 3 sub-questions.

Research questionsSub questions
Why is there an uneven distribution of depositional landforms in the coastal landscape at x?Where are depositional landforms (like beaches, spits, bars, sand dunes and saltmarshes) in the landscape at x?


Is the rate of deposition linked to wave power?

Is there a relationship between wave power and beach morphology?

How and why does beach morphology vary between different parts of the coast?How does beach planform, size, profile and sediment vary?


Is there a relationship between longshore drift and beach morphology?

Are the sand dunes at x growing or shrinking?How does frontal dune profile and dune system width vary?


To what extent is wind action creating new dunes at the shoreline?

How have the dunes changed over time?

Specialised geographical concepts

A good way to demonstrate challenge in your choice of research question and/or sub questions is to consider one or more of the specialised geographical concepts. Here are a few suggestions:

Specialised conceptResearch question or sub question
CausalityTo what extent do wave characteristics affect landforms at x?
CausalityWhat is the relationship between the rate of deposition and wave energy at x?
SystemWhat are the variations in the sediment budget along the foredunes at sand dune system x?
EquilibriumIs spit x in dynamic equilibrium?
FeedbackIs there a positive feedback relationship in the development of sand dune blowouts at x?
FeedbackIs there a positive feedback relationship between sediment size, infiltration rate and beach gradient at beach x?

Choosing a fieldwork location

You can either concentrate on a single beach, perhaps the whole beach within a bay or along the length and tip of a spit, or consider depositional landforms along a 2-5km length of coastline.

A possible fieldwork location. Polkerris (Cornwall) by Google Earth / Imagery ©2016 Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Map data ©2016 Google.

Polkerris in Cornwall is a possible fieldwork location. Safe access to all parts of the beach is available from Polkerris village. Why does the width of the beach vary? How has this beach changed over time? Is the beach in equilibrium?

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