Breakwater (structure)

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Breakwaters create safer harbours, but can also trap sediment moving along the coast. Alamitos Bay, CA entrance channel.

Breakwaters are structures constructed on coasts as part of coastal defense or to protect an anchorage from the effects of both weather and longshore drift.

Purposes of breakwaters[edit]

Breakwaters, also called bulkheads, reduce the intensity of wave action in inshore waters and thereby reduce coastal erosion or provide safe harbourage. Breakwaters may also be small structures designed to protect a gently sloping beach and placed one to three hundred feet offshore in relatively shallow water.

An anchorage is only safe if ships anchored there are protected from the force of high winds and powerful waves by some large underwater barrier which they can shelter behind. Natural harbours are formed by such barriers as headlands or reefs. Artificial harbours can be created with the help of breakwaters. Mobile harbours, such as the D-Day Mulberry harbours, were floated into position and acted as breakwaters. Some natural harbours, such as those in Plymouth Sound, Portland Harbour and Cherbourg, have been enhanced or extended by breakwaters made of rock.

Unintended consequences[edit]

The dissipation of energy and relative calm water created in the lee of the breakwaters often encourage accretion of sediment (as per the design of the breakwater scheme). However this can lead to excessive salient build up, leading to tombolo formation reducing longshore drift shoreward of the breakwaters (Sea Palling, UK). This trapping of sediment can cause adverse effects down drift of the breakwaters leading to beach sediment starvation and increased erosion. This may then lead to further engineering protection being needed down drift of the breakwater development.

Breakwaters are subject to damage, and overtopping in severe storms events.

Three of the four breakwaters forming Portland Harbour
The eight offshore breakwaters at Elmer, UK


Breakwaters can be constructed with one end linked to the shore, in which case they are usually classified as sea walls; otherwise they are positioned offshore from as little as 100 m up to 300-600 m from the original shoreline. There are two main types of offshore breakwater, single and multiple; single as the name suggests means the breakwater consists of one unbroken barrier, which multiple breakwaters (in numbers anywhere from 2-20) are positioned with gaps in between (50-300 m). Length of gap is largely governed by the interacting wavelengths. Breakwaters may be either fixed or floating, and impermeable or permeable to allow sediment transfer shoreward of the structures, the choice depending tidal range and water depth. They usually consist of large pieces of rock (granite) weighing up to 16 tonnes each, or rubble-mound. Their design is influenced by the angle of wave approach and other environmental parameters. Breakwater construction can be either parallel or perpendicular to the coast, depending on the shoreline requirements.

Types of breakwater structures[edit]

A breakwater structure is designed to absorb the energy of the waves that hit it, either by using mass (e.g., with caissons), or by using a revetment slope (e.g., with rock or concrete armour units).

In coastal engineering, a revetment is a land backed structure whilst a breakwater is a sea backed structure (i.e., water on both sides).

Caisson breakwaters typically have vertical sides and are usually erected where it is desirable to berth one or more vessels on the inner face of the breakwater. They use the mass of the caisson and the fill within it to resist the overturning forces applied by waves hitting them. They are relatively expensive to construct in shallow water, but in deeper sites they can offer a significant saving over revetment breakwaters.

Rubble mound breakwaters use structural voids to dissipate the wave energy. Rock or concrete armour units on the outside of the structure absorb most of the energy, while gravels or sands prevent the wave energy's continuing through the breakwater core. The slopes of the revetment are typically between 1:1 and 1:2, depending upon the materials used. In shallow water, revetment breakwaters are usually relatively inexpensive. As water depth increases, the material requirements, and hence costs, increase significantly.[citation needed]

Advanced numerical study[edit]

3D Numerical Simulation - MEDUS 2009

The Maritime Engineering Division of the University of Salerno (MEDUS) developed a new procedure for studying in greater detail the interactions between maritime breakwaters (submerged or emerged) and the waves that hit them by making integrated use of CAD and CFD software.

In the numerical simulations, the filtration motion of the fluid within the interstices, which normally exist in a breakwater, is estimated by integrating the RANS equations, coupled with a RNG turbulence model inside the voids, instead of using classical equations for porous media.

The breakwaters were modelled, in analogy to full size construction or physical laboratory tests, by overlapping three-dimensional elements and having the numerical grid thickened in order to have some computational nodes along the flow paths among the breakwater’s blocks.

Notable locations[edit]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]