Remote Sensing Coastal Change

Science Center Objects

We use remote-sensing technologies—such as aerial photography, satellite imagery, structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry, and lidar (laser-based surveying)—to measure coastal change along U.S. shorelines.

Quantifying coastal change is essential for calculating trends in erosion, evaluating processes that shape coastal landscapes, and predicting how the coast will respond to future storms and sea-level rise, all critical for U.S. coastal communities. 

Rapid developments have occurred in remote-sensing technologies during the 21st century. With our collaborators in and beyond the Department of the Interior, we seek to apply these technologies in innovative ways to advance understanding of coastal systems and their hazards.

Using video imagery to study coastal change

Currently, video cameras are installed at these locations:

USGS researchers analyze the imagery and video collected from these cameras in order to remotely sense a range of processes, which include shoreline position, sandbar migration, rip-channel formation, wave run-up on the beach, alongshore current, and nearshore bathymetry.

USGS plans to install additional systems at other U.S. locations. The knowledge gained will improve computer-derived simulations of coastal flooding and shoreline change that communities can use to plan for sea-level rise, changing storm patterns, and other threats to beaches.

Photogrammetry of California’s Big Sur coast

On May 20, 2017, the steep slopes at Mud Creek on California’s Big Sur coast, about 140 miles south of San Francisco, suffered a catastrophic collapse. USGS scientists from the Pacific Coastal and Marine and the Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Centers continue to monitor this section of the coastline, in collaboration with the California Department of Transportation.

On January 28, 2021, following a two-day deluge of heavy rain totalling more than 8 inches, another catastrophic failure and complete washout of Highway 1 occurred at Rat Creek, about 12 miles north of Mud Creek. USGS once again flew a reconnaissance flight along the coast on January 29, collecting highly detailed photography of much of the Big Sur coastline.

Big Sur landslide on May 20, 2017 showing material across Highway 1.

USGS air photo of the Mud Creek landslide, taken on May 27, 2017.

A view from the sky of a winding coastal road that runs along steep, rocky cliffs, with a section washed out and collapsed.

USGS air photo of the Rat Creek landslide, taken on January 29, 2021.