Coastal Geomorphology 101

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Any course in coastal geomorphology today would be vastly different to what I experienced in 1959 at Sydney University. It was a year of great change in subject matter not just for me as a student but also for our lecturer, Trevor Langford-Smith. The year exposed me to a coastal field project required of all those involved in the “honours” class. It also provided opportunity to meet with an extraordinarily active researcher from ANU, Joe Jennings, who along with Trevor set me going the next year on a thesis topic involving Quaternary coastal studies in the Port Stephens-Myall Lakes area.

At the start of the coastal course in 1959 lectures were based on that great tome of Douglas Johnson: Shore Processes and Shoreline Development. This was published in 1919! The foreword was written on board a troop ship returning from the battlefields of WW1. This remarkable book used much of the literature up to that time including the work of G.K. Gilbert that derived many basic process principles based on his work at Lake Bonneville, Utah, a considerable distance from the sea. Both Peter Cowell and myself have in recent years delved back into the work of Johnson and Gilbert and remain quite staggered by their insights and ability to convey so much of what is still pertinent today.

Up until 1959, Trevor focussed considerable efforts on students examining both the literature and in the field the origin and characteristics of rock platforms. Here he had more recent literature for us to read. We also had nearby a grand laboratory to inspect and describe. Each student in the honours class was assigned a beach with adjacent headland and platforms; I was given Coogee. The aim was to look at each site and consider the various ideas of platform genesis that we read about from old papers such as those by Wentworth, Bartrum, Hills, Cotton and Johnson. I quickly became aware of the difficulties in resolving different hypotheses but remained excited by being given responsibility for getting out by myself and doing “ real” field work. The hazards of working alone under cliff faces and on rock ledges was not considered an issue either by me or by Trevor or the University—different world today?

But times were changing. Trevor alerted us to a set of papers that had just appeared in the Australian Journal of Science discussing the origin of sand beach ridges. Jack Davies wrote an article in 1957 setting the scene with his progradation model based on beach berm nucleus; this was contested by chap from Belmont, NSW, called Peter McKenzie, but supported by Eric Bird who at that time was completing a PhD under Joe Jennings at ANU in Gippsland. Joe had told me of the work of Eric on a visit to Sydney when he also told me of his own work on dune landforms of King Island that had just been published. But who was this chap McKenzie? It turned out he was working as a coal geologist in Newcastle but had just finished a Master’s degree at UNSW, one of the first from that institution. He had been a surf life saver at Dee Why and had spent some time working for a sand mining company on the NSW coast. As a hobby he wrote up his observations and quite monumentally had just published a paper in the Journal of Geology (1958) on rip currents. I tracked him down and over the next 3 years had many wonderful hours with him at his home and in the field. He died while I was overseas and always think of him as I drive through Belmont.

These studies by Davies, Bird, Jennings and McKenzie were available to us later in our course in 1959. This was important because it enabled Trevor to shift away from platforms and Johnson’s epistle to beaches and dunes as studied in Australia. Work by Sprigg and Fairbridge came later as we turned our attention to sea level histories. But there was another major event in 1959 that changed the nature of the course and opened up a more contemporary world view of coastal geomorphology. That was the publication in 1959 of the text book Beaches and Coasts by C.A.M. King. At the time she was a lecturer in Geography at University of Nottingham.

To me this book was a revelation. It brought together many new studies of coastal processes including those of engineers in the USA published as Technical Memoranda by the Beach Erosion Board. She even cited McKenzie’s 1958 rip work as an example of new research in coastal processes and Joe’s study of King Island dunes. Her book built on past regional studies work including that of Steers in the UK, Guilcher in France, Valentin in Germany and Zenkovich in USSR. Surprisingly there was no reference to Mississippi research by Russell, Fisk and others that later had great influence on me. But she did mention the work of one of the great coastal dune scientists that I absorbed with great enthusiasm in 1960, W.S Cooper of Oregon fame. What I could never have dreamt back in 1959-60, that by 1964 I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to most of these great coastal geomorphologists. Their encouragement still resonates with me today.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2018, posted 15 January 2018, for correspondence about this blog post please email