See C. A. M. King, Beaches and Coasts (2d ed. 1972).
The coast is defined as the part of the land adjoining or near the ocean. A coastline is properly a line on a map indicating the disposition of a coast, but the word is often used to refer to the coast itself. The adjective coastal describes something as being on, near to, or associated with a coast.
Coast is a specific term, and is applied to that part of an island or continent that borders an ocean or its saltwater tributaries. A pelagic coast refers to a coast which fronts the open ocean, as opposed to a more sheltered coast in a gulf or bay. A shore on the other hand, can refer to parts of the land which adjoin any large body of water, including oceans (sea shore) and lakes (lake shore). Similarly, the somewhat related term bank refers to the land alongside or sloping down to a river (river bank) or of a body of water smaller than a lake. Bank is also used in some parts of the world to refer to an artificial ridge of earth intended to retain the water of a river or pond. In other places this may be called a levee.
While many scientific experts might agree on a common definition of the term "coast", the delineation of the inland extents of a coast differ according to jurisdiction, with many scientific and government authorities in various countries differing for economic and social policy reasons. This is usually because defining lands as part of a coast may be seen to have environmental implications which would prevent development or attach regulations to their use.
Like the ocean which shapes them, coasts are a dynamic environment with constant change. The earth's natural processes, particularly sea level rise, waves and various weather phenomena, have resulted in the erosion, accretion and reshaping of coasts as well as flooding and creation of continental shelves and drowned river valleys (rias).
The high level of biodiversity creates a high level of biological activity, which has attracted human activity for thousands of years. Due to extraordinary population growth in the 20th century, tremendous pressures have been placed on the planet’s ecosystems. With a larger population we must provide more housing, energy, and food. The problem exists both in the concentration of people in coastal areas and their sheer numbers. In the Mancote Mangroves of St. Lucia, harvesting mangrove for timber and clearing for fishing drove the mangrove forests to dangerously low levels. This disruption resulted in a loss of habitat and spawning ground for marine life that was unique to the area. These mangrove forests also helped to stabilize the coastlines. St. Lucia was faced with a huge mess and fortunately have been able to make great conservation efforts since the 80’s that has partially restored the ecosystem functioning.
Pollution is an ongoing concern along coasts with garbage and industrial debris littering beaches and sometimes entire coasts, requiring government agencies to make frequent use of beach cleaners and other volunteer cleanup efforts. The transportation of petroleum in tankers is a major hazard both for the open ocean and along coasts, particularly when large oil spills occur. Another major hazard for coastal marine life is the large number of small oil spills created by large and small vessels powered by petroleum which flush bilge water directly into the ocean.
A large part of the global population inhabits areas near a coast, partly to take advantage of marine resources such as fish, but more importantly to participate in seaborne trade with other nations. Many of the world's major cities that have developed in recent centuries were built on or near good harbours and have large port facilities to take advantage of marine transportation. Jurisdictions which are landlocked and have no coast are often at an economic disadvantage with overseas trade being more difficult; sometimes being forced to go to extravagant measures such as building canals to permit ocean-going vessels to travel inland.
Coasts, especially those with beaches and warm water are also an important draw for tourists. In many island nations such as those of the Mediterranean, South Pacific and Caribbean, tourism by those who come to enjoy the coast is central to the economy. Coasts are popular destinations because of recreational activities such as swimming, fishing, surfing, boating, and sunbathing. Growth management can be a challenge for coastal local authorities who often struggle to provide the infrastructure required by new residents seeking seachange lifestyles.
Many tourists and residents also enjoy the salt air by the sea coast which some consider to have health benefits. Coastal weather is heavily influenced by the ocean and while this can sometimes result in dangerous storms such as Nor'easters and hurricanes, the coastal climate is often cooler and more temperate than corresponding inland areas. Consequently tourists from areas experiencing extremely warm and humid weather seek coastal areas for these reasons.
Fisheries have lost much of their capacity to produce fish due to habitat degradation, and over-fishing. Overharvesting, trawling, bycatch and climate change are among some of the major pressures on fisheries. Since the growth of the global fishing enterprise since the 1950’s, intensive fishing has gone from a few concentrated areas to encompass nearly all fisheries. Not only is over fishing a problem but the technology involved creates even greater destruction. Trawling, or bottom dragging, is used for catching shrimp and other bottom dwelling species. This scraping of the ocean floor is devastating to coral, sponges and other long-lived species that do not recover quickly. This destruction alters the functioning of the ecosystem and can permanently alter species composition and biodiversity. Bycatch is the result of capturing unintended species in the course of fishing. Of this unintended catch most is discarded back into the ocean and dies from injuries or exposure. Bycatch represents approximately ¼ of all marine catch. In the case of shrimp capture, the amount of bycatch is five times larger than the amount of shrimp caught.
The coast is often a crucial defensive frontier, both for warding off military invaders but also smugglers and illegal migrants. Coastal defenses have thus long been erected in many nations. Most coastal countries also have a navy and some form of coast guard.
An emergent coastline is a coastline which has experienced a fall in sea level, because of either a global sea level change, or local uplift. Emergent coastlines are identifiable by the coastal landforms, which are above the high tide mark, such as raised beaches. Alternatively, a submergent coastline is a coastline which has experienced a rise in sea level, due to a global sea level change, local subsidence, or isostatic rebound. Submergent coastlines are identifiable by their submerged, or "drowned" landforms, such as rias (drowned valleys) and fjords.
A concordant coastline is a coastline where bands of different rock types run parallel to the shore. These rock types are usually of alternating resistance, so the coastline forms distinctive landforms, such as coves. A discordant coastline is a type of coastline formed when rock types of alternating resistance run perpendicular to the shore. Discordant coastlines feature distinctive landforms because the rocks are eroded by ocean waves. The less resistant rocks erode faster, creating inlets or bays; the more resistant rocks erode more slowly, remaining as headlands or outcroppings.