Remote Sensing Coastal Change

Science Center Objects

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

Two adjacent poles holding video cameras near top, one control box near bottom, one man holding small tool near control box.

USGS ocean engineer Gerry Hatcher (left) and USGS postdoctoral oceanographer Shawn Harrison make adjustments to a computer controlling two video cameras on the roof of the Dream Inn, a 10-story hotel overlooking Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz, California.

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 overlook the coast in four locations, along beaches in Washington, California, and Florida. More locations are planned. Current video camera locations are:

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 similar systems in other remote 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.

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.

The Mud Creek landslide on 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 are monitoring this section of the coastline, in collaboration with the California Department of Transportation.