A seawall (or sea wall) is a form of coastal defense constructed where the sea, and associated coastal processes, impact directly upon the landforms of the coast. The purpose of a seawall is to protect areas of human habitation, conservation and leisure activities from the action of tides and waves. As a seawall is a static feature it will conflict with the dynamic nature of the coast and impede the exchange of sediment between land and sea.
The coast is generally a high-energy, dynamic environment with spatial variations occurring over a wide range of temporal scales. The shoreline is part of the coastal interface which is exposed to a wide range of erosional processes arising from fluvial, aeolian and terrestrial sources, meaning that a combination of denudational processes will work against a seawall. Given the natural forces to which seawalls are constantly subjected, maintenance (and eventually replacement) is an ongoing requirement if they are to provide an effective long-term solution.
The many types in use today reflect both the varying physical forces they are designed to withstand, and location specific aspects, such as: local climate, coastal position, wave regime, and value of landform. Seawalls are classified as a hard engineering shore based structure used to provide protection and to lessen coastal erosion. However, a range of environmental problems and issues may arise from the construction of a seawall, including disrupting sediment movement and transport patterns, which are discussed in more detail below. Combined with a high construction cost, this has led to an increasing use of other soft engineering coastal management options such as beach replenishment.
Seawalls may be constructed from a variety of materials, most commonly: reinforced concrete, boulders, steel, or gabions. Additional seawall construction materials may include: vinyl, wood, aluminium, fibreglass composite, and with large biodegrable sandbags made of jute and coir. In the UK, sea wall also refers to an earthen bank used to create a polder, or a dike construction.
A seawall works by reflecting incident wave energy back into the sea, thereby reducing the energy and erosion which the coastline would otherwise be subjected to. In addition to their unsightly visual appearance, two specific weaknesses of seawalls exist. Firstly, wave reflection induced by the wall may result in scour and subsequent lowering of the sand level of the fronting beach. Secondly, seawalls may accelerate erosion of adjacent, unprotected coastal areas because they affect the littoral drift process. The design and type of seawall that is appropriate depends on aspects specific to the location, including the surrounding erosion processes. There are three main types of seawalls: vertical, curved or stepped, and mounds, as set out in the table:
|Vertical||Vertical seawalls are built in particularly exposed situations. These reflect wave energy. Under storm conditions a non-breaking standing wave pattern can form, resulting in a stationary clapotic wave which moves up and down but does not travel horizontally. These waves promote erosion at the toe of the wall and can cause severe damage to the sea wall. In some cases piles are placed in front of the wall to lessen wave energy slightly.|
|Curved||Curved or stepped seawalls are designed to enable waves to break to dissipate wave energy and to repel waves back to the sea. The curve can also prevent the wave overtopping the wall and provides additional protection for the toe of the wall.|
|Mound||Mound type seawalls, using revetments or riprap, are used in less demanding settings where lower energy erosional processes operate. The least exposed sites involve the lowest-cost bulkheads and revetments of sand bags or geotextiles. These serve to armour the shore and minimise erosion and may be either watertight or porous, which allows water to filter through after the wave energy has been dissipated.|
A cost benefit approach is an effective way to determine whether a seawall is appropriate and whether the benefits are worth the expense. Besides controlling erosion, consideration must be given to the effects of hardening a shoreline on natural coastal ecosystems and human property or activities. A seawall is a static feature which can conflict with the dynamic nature of the coast and impede the exchange of sediment between land and sea. The table below summarises some positive and negative effects of seawalls which can be used when comparing their effectiveness with other coastal management options, such as beach nourishment.
Generally seawalls can be a successful way to control coastal erosion, but only if they are constructed well and out of materials which can withstand the force of ongoing wave energy. Some understanding is needed of the coastal processes and morphodynamics specific to the seawall location. Seawalls can be very helpful; they can offer a more long-term solution than soft engineering options, additionally providing recreation opportunities and protection from extreme events as well as everyday erosion. Extreme natural events expose weaknesses in the performance of seawalls, and analyses of these can lead to future improvements and reassessment.
In 2007 researchers at the University of Salerno published studies showing interactions between maritime breakwaters and waves using CAD and CFD software (see diagrams on right). In the simulations the filtration motion of the fluid within the interstices, which normally exist in a breakwater, is estimated by integrating the relevant RANS equations coupled with a random number generated turbulence model inside the voids, rather than using the classical equations for porous media. The breakwaters were modelled, both for the actual size construction and for a physical laboratory test, by overlapping three-dimensional elements. The numerical grid was thickened in such a way to have some computational nodes along the flow paths among the breakwater’s blocks.
Sea level rise
Sea level rise creates an issue for seawalls worldwide as it raises both the mean normal water level and the height of waves during extreme weather events, which the current seawall heights may be unable to cope with (Allan et al. 1999). The most recent analyses of long, good-quality tide gauge records (corrected for GIA and when possible for other vertical land motions by the Global Positioning System, GPS) indicate a mean rate of sea level rise of 1.6–1.8 mm/yr over the twentieth century.  The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1997) suggested that sea level rise over the next 50 – 100 years will accelerate with a projected increase in global mean sea level of +18 cm by 2050 AD. This data is reinforced by Hannah (1990) who calculated similar statistics including a rise of between +16-19.3 cm throughout 1900–1988. Super storm Sandy of 2012 is an example of the devastating effects rising sea levels can cause when mixed with a perfect storm. According to Nabil Ismail, Professor of Coastal Engineering at the Maritime Academy for Science and Technology and S. Jeffress Williams, Dept. of Geology and Geophysics at The University of Hawaii at Manoa stated that Super storm Sandy sent a storm surge of 4-5 m onto New Jersey's and New York's barrier island and urban shorelines, estimated at $70 billion in damage. EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts. Vol. 15. 2013.This problem could be overcome by further modelling and determining the extension of height and reinforcement of current seawalls which needs to occur for safety to be ensured in both situations.
Extreme events also pose a problem as it is not easy for people to predict or imagine the strength of hurricane or storm induced waves compared to normal, expected wave patterns. An extreme event can dissipate hundreds of times more energy than everyday waves, and calculating structures which will stand the force of coastal storms is difficult and, often the outcome can become unaffordable. For example, Omaha Beach seawall in New Zealand was designed to prevent erosion from everyday waves only, and when a storm in 1976 carved out 10 m behind the existing seawall the whole structure was destroyed (GeoResources, 2001).
Some further issues include: lack of long term trend data of seawall effects due to a relatively short duration of data records; modelling limitations and comparisons of different projects and their effects being invalid or unequal due to different beach types; materials; currents; and environments (Christchurch City Council, 2009). Lack of maintenance is also a major issue with sea walls. In a post on October 21, 2013 by NBC reporter Lucas Seiler, more than 5,000 feet of seawall is crumbling in Punta Gorda, Florida. Residents of the area pay hundreds of dollars each year into a seawall repair program. The problem is that most of the seawalls are over a half century old and are being destroyed by only heavy downpours. If not kept in check, seawalls lose effectiveness and become expensive to repair. 
Seawall construction has existed since ancient times. In the 1st century BCE, Romans built a seawall / breakwater at Caesarea Maritima creating an artificial harbor (Sebastos Harbor). The construction used Pozzolana concrete which hardens in contact with sea water. Barges were constructed and filled with the concrete. They were floated into position and sunk. The resulting harbor / breakwater / sea wall is still in existence today - more than 2000 years later.
More recently, sea walls were constructed in 1623 in Canvey Island, UK, when great floods of the Thames estuary occurred, prompting the construction of protection for further events in this flood prone area (Council of Europe, 1999). Since then, seawall design has become more complex and intricate in response to an improvement in materials, technology and an understanding of how coastal processes operate. This section will outline some key case studies of seawalls in chronological order and describe how they have performed in response to tsunami or ongoing natural processes and how effective they were in these situations. Analysing the successes and shortcomings of seawalls during severe natural events allows their weaknesses to be exposed, and areas become visible for future improvement.
On December 26, 2004, towering waves of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake tsunami crashed against India's south-eastern coastline killing thousands. However, the former French colonial enclave of Pondicherry escaped unscathed. This was primarily due to French engineers who had constructed (and maintained) a massive stone seawall during the time which the city was a French colony. This 300 year old seawall effectively kept Pondicherry's historic centre dry even though tsunami waves drove water 24 feet above the normal high-tide mark.
The barrier was initially completed in 1735 and over the years, the French continued to fortify the wall, piling huge boulders along its 1.25 mile (2 km) coastline to stop erosion from the waves pounding the harbour. At its highest, the barrier running along the water's edge reaches about 27 feet above sea level. The boulders, some weighing up to a ton, are weathered black and brown. The sea wall is inspected every year and whenever gaps appear or the stones sink into the sand, the government adds more boulders to keep it strong (Allsop, 2002).
The Union Territory of Pondicherry recorded some 600 deaths from the huge tsunami waves that struck India's coast after the mammoth underwater earthquake (which measured 9.0 on the moment magnitude scale) off Indonesia, but most of those killed were fishermen who lived in villages beyond the artificial barrier which reinforces the effectiveness of seawalls.
The Vancouver Seawall is a stone seawall constructed around the perimeter of Stanley Park in Vancouver. The seawall was constructed initially as waves created by ships passing through the First Narrows were eroding the area between Prospect Point and Brockton Point. The Vancouver Seawall also exemplifies how seawalls can be utilised and valued for recreational activities and coastal sightseeing. A pedestrian, cycling and roller blading pathway exists on the seawall and has been extended far outside the parameters of Stanley Park. Construction of the seawall began in 1917, and since then this pathway has become one of the most used features of the park by both locals and tourists and now extends 22 km in total (Belyea & Ross, 1992). The construction of the seawall also provided employment for relief workers during the Great Depression and seamen from HMCS Discovery on Deadman's Island who were facing punishment detail in the 1950s (Steele, 1985).
Overall, the Vancouver Seawall is a prime example of how seawalls can simultaneously provide shoreline protection and a source of recreation which enhances human enjoyment of the coastal environment. It also illustrates that although shoreline erosion is a natural process, human activities, interactions with the coast and poorly planned shoreline development projects can accelerate natural erosion rates.
At least 43 percent of Japan’s 29,751 km  kilometre coastline is lined with concrete seawalls or other structures designed to protect the country against high waves, typhoons or even tsunamis (New York Times, 2011). When a Tsunami struck in 2011 following a magnitude 9 offshore earthquake, the seawalls in most areas were overwhelmed. In Kamaishi, 4-metre waves surmounted the seawall —the world’s largest, erected a few years ago in the city’s harbour at a depth of 63 metres, a length of 2 kilometres and a cost of $1.5 billion — and eventually submerged the city centre (Musubi, 2011).
The risks of dependence on seawalls was most evident in the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi and Fukushima Dai-ni nuclear power plants, both located along the coast close to the earthquake zone, as the tsunami washed over walls that were supposed to protect the plants. Arguably, the additional defence provided by the seawalls presented an extra margin of time for citizens to evacuate and also stopped some of the full force of energy which would have caused the wave to climb higher in the backs of coastal valleys. In contrast, the seawalls also acted in a negative way to trap water and delay its retreat.
The failure of the world's largest seawall, which cost $1.5 billion to construct, shows that building stronger sea walls to protect larger areas would have been too costly to be effective. In the case of the ongoing crisis at the nuclear power plants, higher and stronger sea walls should have been built if power plants were to be built at that site. Fundamentally, the devastation in coastal areas and a final death toll predicted to exceed 10,000 could push Japan to redesign its seawalls or consider more effective alternative methods of coastal protection for extreme events. Such hardened coastlines can also provide a false sense of security to property owners and local residents as evident in this situation (Msubi, 2011).
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- , "More failing Seawalls in Punta Gorda Isles - NBC-2.com WBBH News for Fort Myers, Cape Coral & Naples, Florida." NBC-2.com. Nbc, 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
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- New York Times. (2011) Japan’s Seawalls Didn’t Provide Security from tsunami retrieved online 18 April 2011 from: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/953485--japan-s-seawalls-didn-t-provide-security-from-tsunami
- Msubi (2011) Seawalls are no Match for Japan Tsunami. Retrieved online 8 April 2011 from: http://www.nippon-sekai.com/main/articles/great-east-japan-earthquake-of-2011/sea-walls-were-no-match-for-this-tsunami/
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Seawalls.|
|Look up seawall in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Channel Coastal Observatory - Seawalls
- Seawalls and defences on the Isle of Wight
- MEDUS (Maritime Engineering Division University Salerno)
- "Japan may rethink seawalls after tsunami", New York Times, March 14, 2011