Shoreline Evaluation (introductory activity)

Shelley J Whitmeyer

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Initial Publication Date: July 7, 2016


In this project, students will evaluate the stability of a coastal location of their choice along the coast of Virginia. The evaluation framework presented in this activity has been adapted from the US Geological Survey Coastal Vulnerability Index. After completing the analysis for their chosen site, they will compare their site with the sites chosen by other students in the class.  While comparing sites they will discuss why some areas are more stable than others.  After completing this activity students should understand that coastal areas are dynamic, complex regions, and good land-management decisions depend on good data.

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Learning Goals

Students will...

  • Discover that barrier islands evolve on a human time scale.
  • Locate wave, morphological, and sea level data.
  • Implement a strategy for evaluating the vulnerability of a coastal community using the data they collected.
  • Develop an argument that is consistent with available geologic evidence.
  • Communicate results to a non-scientific audience.

Context for Use

This exercise has been used by me in an introductory, undergraduate oceanography class and physical geology class. This is a large class (~100 students) and most of the students are non-science majors. This activity works well with groups of students. This assignment takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

This assignment would also work well in an introductory geology lab or a geomorphology class.

Description and Teaching Materials

The activity and necessary data have been assembled in a Story Map (ESRI).

Here is the link to the Story Map:

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity works well in large classes. I generally have students complete the initial coastal evaluation as a group.  Groups of 4 seem to work well.  The 'field notes' are formatted as a Google Doc, so it is easy for the students to collaborate.

Please send any suggestions or edits to me (


Students are asked to turn in the field notes. Here is the link to the field notes:

There are no correct answers provided because the answers will differ depending on the location.

References and Resources

Background Information:
Thieler, E.R., and Hammar-Klose, E.S., 1999. National Assessment of Coastal Vulnerability to Future Sea Level Rise: Preliminary Results for the U.S. Atlantic Coast. U.S. Geological Survey, Open-File Report 99-593, 1 sheet
Available online at:

Data Sources:
Background Story Map:

Historical Aerial Photos: 

VBMP 2017 WGS Web Mercator (VGIN)

VBMP 2002 Web Mercator

Tide Data:

Wave Data:

Sea Level Trends: 

Rates of Shoreline Change: