Scale-dependent perspectives on the geomorphology and evolution of beach-dune systems

Ian Walker, Robin Davidson-Arnott, Bernard Bauer, Patrick Hesp, Irene Delgado-Fernandez, Jeff Ollerhead, Thomas Smyth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Citations (Scopus)


Despite widespread recognition that landforms are complex Earth systems with process-response linkages thatspan temporal scales from seconds to millennia and spatial scales from sand grains to landscapes, research that integrates knowledge across these scales is fairly uncommon. As a result, understanding of geomorphic systems isoften scale-constrained due to a host of methodological, logistical, and theoretical factors that limit the scope of how Earth scientists study and forms and broader landscapes.This paper reviews recent advances in understanding of the geomorphology of beach-dune systems derivedfrom over a decade of collaborative research from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada. A comprehensive summary of key findings is provided from short-term experiments embedded within a decade-long monitoring program and a multi-decadal reconstruction of coastal landscape change. Specific attention is paid to the challenges of scale integration and the contextual limitations research at specific spatial and/or temporal scales imposes.A conceptual framework is presented that integrates across key scales of investigation in geomorphology and is grounded in classic ideas in Earth surface sciences on the effectiveness of formative events at different scales.The paper uses this framework to organize the review of this body of research in a‘scale aware’way and,thereby, identifies many new advances in knowledge on the form and function of subaerial beach-dune systems.Finally, the paper offers a synopsis of how greater understanding of the complexities at different scales can be used to inform the development of predictive models, especially those at a temporal scale of decades to centuries,which are most relevant to coastal management issues. Models at this (landform) scale require an understanding of controls that exist at both‘landscape’and‘plot’scales. Landscape scale controls such as sea level change,regional climate, and the underlying geologic framework essentially provide bounding conditions for in-dependent variables such as winds, waves, water levels, and littoral sediment supply. Similarly, a holistic understanding of the range of processes, feedbacks, and linkages at the finer plot scale is required to inform and verify the assumptions that underly the physical modelling of beach-dune interaction at the landform scale.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)220-253
Number of pages34
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Early online date23 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017
Externally publishedYes


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