Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Jesse E. McNinch


Elevated water levels and large waves during storms cause beach erosion, overwash, and coastal flooding, particularly along barrier island coastlines. While predictions of storm tracks have greatly improved over the last decade, predictions of maximum water levels and variations in the extent of damage along a coastline need improvement. In particular, physics based models still cannot explain why some regions along a relatively straight coastline may experience significant erosion and overwash during a storm, while nearby locations remain seemingly unchanged. Correct predictions of both the timing of erosion and variations in the magnitude of erosion along the coast will be useful to both emergency managers and homeowners preparing for an approaching storm. Unfortunately, research on the impact of a storm to the beach has mainly been derived from "pre" and "post" storm surveys of beach topography and nearshore bathymetry during calm conditions. This has created a lack of data during storms from which to ground-truth model predictions and test hypotheses that explain variations in erosion along a coastline. We have developed Coastal Lidar and Radar Imaging System (CLARIS), a mobile system that combines a terrestrial scanning laser and an X-band marine radar system using precise motion and location information. CLARIS can operate during storms, measuring beach topography, nearshore bathymetry (from radar-derived wave speed measurements), surf-zone wave parameters, and maximum water levels remotely. In this dissertation, we present details on the development, design, and testing of CLARIS and then use CLARIS to observe a 10 km section of coastline in Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina every 12 hours during a Nor'Easter (peak wave height in 8 m of water depth = 3.4 m). High decadal rates of shoreline change as well as heightened erosion during storms have previously been documented to occur within the field site. In addition, complex bathymetric features that traverse the surf-zone into the nearshore are present along the southern six kilometers of the field site. In addition to the CLARIS observations, we model wave propagation over the complex nearshore bathymetry for the same storm event. Data reveal that the complex nearshore bathymetry is mirrored by kilometer scale undulations in the shoreline, and that both morphologies persist during storms, contrary to common observations of shoreline and surf-zone linearization by large storm waves. We hypothesize that wave refraction over the complex nearshore bathymetry forces flow patterns which may enhance or stabilize the shoreline and surf-zone morphology during storms. In addition, our semi-daily surveys of the beach indicate that spatial and temporal patterns of erosion are strongly correlated to the steepness of the waves. Along more than half the study site, fifty percent or more of the erosion that occurred during the first 12 hours of the storm was recovered within 24 hours of the peak of the storm as waves remained large (>2.5 m), but transitioned to long period swell. In addition, spatial variations in the amount of beach volume change during the building portion of the storm were strongly correlated with observed wave dissipation within the inner surf zone, as opposed to predicted inundation elevations or alongshore variations in wave height.



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