Coastal landforms and processes at the Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts—A primer

Circular 1417
By: , and 



Anyone who spends more than a few days on Cape Cod (the Cape) quickly becomes a coastal geologist, quickly learning the rhythms of daily tides and the seasonal cycles of beaches growing and being swept away by storms; swimmers and surfers track how the breakers appear, and dog-walkers notice the hard-packed sand blanketed overnight by an airy layer that leaves deep labored tracks.

Careful observers whose paths wander to the ocean’s edge will observe many of the landforms and coastal processes described in this book and if we have done our job well, the stories told here will seem familiar. Watchful experience brings insights; indeed, this is how scientists and perhaps how artists work, describing patterns that explain and predict. When is the next high tide? What will the winter bring? Where do we build, fish, swim? How do wind and waves offshore in the North Atlantic help arrange the plants and dunes and hollows on the beach? And most of all, as human animals drawn to live and play on the edge of the ocean, how do we get the benefits of this complex natural system of geology and biology? How do we affect coastal processes; how is the coast changing now and how is the coast likely to change in years ahead with climate warming and climate change?

This book is about the highly dynamic coastal landforms of Cape Cod—the beaches, bluffs, spits, dunes, barrier beaches, estuaries, and salt marshes. What they are, why they are where they are, how they behave with respect to the greater Cape Cod coastal system—how the landforms respond to day-to-day and long-term geologic processes, such as waves and currents, change in sediment transport, relative sea-level rise, and meteorological processes such as hurricanes, nor’easters, and cold front passages. It is also about how the landforms got to be where they are and the way they are and where they are headed in the near future with the predicted effects of global climate warming and change.

Our objective is to provide a single source of understandable and readable scientific information for those who live, play, and work on outer Cape Cod and at the Cape Cod National Seashore, as well as to provide an introduction to Cape Cod’s coastal landforms for anyone with an interest in Earth science and nature who wants a better understanding of coastal systems and processes. Basic to an understanding of coastal landforms is the fact that they work together—they interact—as elements of many systems, and therefore our ultimate concern is not the individual landform itself but rather the geologic systems that make up Cape Cod and the Cape Cod National Seashore. Much of this discussion can be applied as well to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and other coastal regions.

The coast of outer Cape Cod, about 15,000 years old and about 30 miles (mi; 50 kilometers [km]) long, is but a tiny piece of the global Earth system that operates within a much larger realm of space and time. Cape Cod’s coastal landforms are temporary holding patterns within a continual interplay of land, sea, atmosphere, climate, ice, and life, including a variety of human activities that both affect and are affected by these processes. These interactions produce the landforms, and the landforms alter the interactions. The resulting landforms provide habitats for a wide variety of coastal plants and animals. The habitats along with their inhabitants and the interacting environmental factors controlling them constitute the Cape’s complex and varied ecosystems. But for now, we are here to enjoy it. We welcome you to delight and wonder at the perpetually changing handshake between the ocean and shore at New England’s Great Beach.

Suggested Citation

Giese, G.S., Williams, S.J., and Adams, Mark, 2015, Coastal landforms and processes at the Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts—A primer: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1417, 86 p.,

ISSN: 2330-5703 (online)

ISSN: 1067-084X (print)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1. How the Earth System Works
  • Chapter 2. Cape Cod’s Coastal Landforms: Works in Progress
  • Chapter 3. Global Climate: Glaciers and Sea-Level Change
  • Chapter 4. Wind and Weather
  • Chapter 5. Waves
  • Chapter 6. Tides
  • Chapter 7. Summary
  • Suggested References
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Coastal landforms and processes at the Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts—A primer
Series title Circular
Series number 1417
ISBN 978-1-4113-3994-1
DOI 10.3133/cir1417
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center
Description iv, 86 p.
Country United States
State Massachusetts
Other Geospatial Cape Cod National Seashore
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details