Human activities are often concentrated in coastal regions which are often least able to assimilate those activities, and where adverse effects are most apparent. Coastal zones are relatively fragile ecosystems, and disordered urbanisation and development of infrastructure, alone, or in combination with uncoordinated industrial, tourism-related, fishing and agricultural activities, can lead to rapid degradation of coastal habitats and resources. Mounting pressure on the coastal zone environment has, in several European countries, resulted in a rapid decline in open spaces and natural sites and a lack of space to accommodate coastal activities without significant harmful effects.

Not all effects on coasts are due to human activities; climate can have serious direct and indirect effects on the coastal environment. Effects of occasional storms can be disastrous, whereas the indirect effects of climate change in terms of sea-level rise (see Chapter 27) are predicted to cause potentially serious damage to unprotected low-lying areas along the European coast.


There is no common or unique definition of what constitutes a 'coastal zone', but rather a number of complementary definitions, each serving a different purpose. Although it is generally intuitively understood what is meant by 'the coastal zone', it is difficult to place precise boundaries around it, either landward or seaward. For example, the coastal zone itself is an area considered in some European countries to extend seawards to territorial limits, while by others the edge of the continental shelf at around the 200 m depth contour is regarded as the limit. A general workable definition is:

    the part of the land affected by its proximity to the sea, and that part of the sea affected by its proximity to the land as the extent to which man's land-based activities have a measurable influence on water chemistry and marine ecology.

(US Commission on Marine Science, Engineering and Resources, 1969)

The landward boundary of the coastal zone is particularly vague, since oceans can affect climate far inland from the sea.

The coastal zone is the zone in which most of the infrastructure and human activities directly connected with the sea are located. An estimated 200 million of the European population (total 680 million) live within 50 km of coastal waters. This reflects partly the historical importance of coasts for human settlement for reasons of defence and for providing sources of food. Ports have generated industrial activity. Coastal zones are favoured areas for energy generation because of easy delivery of fuel for power stations and convenient disposal of cooling water. The landward part of the coastal zone plays an important role as a place for human settlement and tourism. In many cases, however, there has been overdevelopment of coastal zones, and this has led to degradation of the environment. This has in turn led to policies to rectify or reduce damage caused.


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35.1 - Introduction

35.2 - Definition of the coastal zone


35.2.1 - The variable coast


35.3 - Coastal zone processes

35.4 - The problems: causes and consequences


35.4.1 - Physical modifications and habitat loss - Coastal erosion - Habitat loss and degradation


35.4.2 - Contamination and coastal pollution - Type and origins of contaminants - Catchment management - Wastewater disposal - The fate and impact of nutrients - Environmental impact of other contaminants - Litter


35.5 - Goals and strategies for coastal zone management

35.6 - Conclusions



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