A scanning airborne topographic lidar was evaluated for its ability to quantify beach topography and changes during the Sandy Duck experiment in 1997 along the North Carolina coast. Elevation estimates, acquired with NASA's Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM), were compared to elevations measured with three types of ground-based measurements - 1) differential GPS equipped all-terrain vehicle (ATV) that surveyed a 3-km reach of beach from the shoreline to the dune, 2) GPS antenna mounted on a stadia rod used to intensely survey a different 100 m reach of beach, and 3) a second GPS-equipped ATV that surveyed a 70-km-long transect along the coast. Over 40,000 individual intercomparisons between ATM and ground surveys were calculated. RMS vertical differences associated with the ATM when compared to ground measurements ranged from 13 to 19 cm. Considering all of the intercomparisons together, RMS ??? 15 cm. This RMS error represents a total error for individual elevation estimates including uncertainties associated with random and mean errors. The latter was the largest source of error and was attributed to drift in differential GPS. The ??? 15 cm vertical accuracy of the ATM is adequate to resolve beach-change signals typical of the impact of storms. For example, ATM surveys of Assateague Island (spanning the border of MD and VA) prior to and immediately following a severe northeaster showed vertical beach changes in places greater than 2 m, much greater than expected errors associated with the ATM. A major asset of airborne lidar is the high spatial data density. Measurements of elevation are acquired every few m2 over regional scales of hundreds of kilometers. Hence, many scales of beach morphology and change can be resolved, from beach cusps tens of meters in wavelength to entire coastal cells comprising tens to hundreds of kilometers of coast. Topographic lidars similar to the ATM are becoming increasingly available from commercial vendors and should, in the future, be widely used in beach surveying.