The effect of coastal landform development on decadal-to millennial-scale longshore sediment fluxes: Evidence from the Holocene evolution of the central mid-Atlantic coast, USA

Justin L. Shawler, Christopher J. Hein, Chloe A. Obara, Mahina G. Robbins, Sebastien Huot, Michael S. Fenster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The behavior of siliciclastic coastal systems is largely controlled by the interplay between accommodation creation and infilling. Factors responsible for altering sediment fluxes to and along open-ocean coasts include cross-shore mobilization of sediment primarily from tidal currents and storms as well as changes in alongshore transport rates moderated by changing wave conditions, river sediment inputs, artificial shoreline hardening and modification, and natural sediment trapping in updrift coastal landforms. This paper focuses on the latter relationships. To address understudied interactions between updrift coastal landforms and downdrift coastal behavior, we quantify the volume and fluxes of sediment trapped in the Assateague-Chincoteague-Wallops barrier-island complex along the Virginia, USA coast and relate these volumes to downdrift coastal-system behavior. During the last ca. 2250 years, these barriers trapped 216 million m3 of sand through the growth of complex beach- and foredune-ridge systems. A period (ca. 400 to 190 years ago) of reduced/no progradation on Chincoteague and Assateague islands corresponds with sediment sequestration in updrift flood-tidal deltas. This finding emphasizes the important control of tidal inlets on alongshore sediment fluxes on barrier-island coasts. Rapid historical spit elongation during the last 190 years has trapped an average of 681,000 m3 yr−1 of sand; this occurred coincident with downdrift barrier-island erosion/migration at long-term rates of >3 m yr−1. Historical sand fluxes to the elongating spit on southern Assateague Island and progradational beach ridges on northernmost Wallops Islands are equivalent to at least 60% of estimated regional longshore transport rates. We therefore propose that sediment trapping and associated wave refraction are the primary drivers of downdrift barrier erosion, while storminess and sea-level rise are secondary forcings of change affecting equally the entire barrier-island chain. Global context is provided by a compilation of sediment trapping through growth of similar longshore sand sinks, which indicates the volume of sediment incorporated into the elongating spit end of Assateague Island is similar to sandy beach- and foredune-ridge plains (108 m3), but average annual trapping at the spit is at least six times greater than those at most mainland-attached, progradational systems. However, Chincoteague and Wallops, two progradational barrier islands, incorporate sand at rates broadly similar to large strandplains. Our findings emphasize the need to account for natural longshore sediment trapping in multi-decadal coastal management efforts on sandy, siliciclastic coasts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107096
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Sep 1 2021


  • Barrier island
  • Longshore transport
  • Progradation
  • Sediment sink
  • Sediment supply
  • Virginia barrier islands

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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