Analysis of shoreline variability and shoreline erosion-accretion trends is fundamental to a broad range of investigations undertaken by coastal scientists, coastal engineers, and coastal managers. Though strictly defined as the intersection of water and land surfaces, for practical purposes, the dynamic nature of this boundary and its dependence on the temporal and spatial scale at which it is being considered results in the use of a range of shoreline indicators. These proxies are generally one of two types: either a feature that is visibly discernible in coastal imagery (e.g., high-water line [HWL]) or the intersection of a tidal datum with the coastal profile (e.g., mean high water [MHW]). Recently, a third category of shoreline indicator has begun to be reported in the literature, based on the application of image-processing techniques to extract proxy shoreline features from digital coastal images that are not necessarily visible to the human eye.
Potential data sources for shoreline investigation include historical photographs, coastal maps and charts, aerial photography, beach surveys, in situ geographic positioning system shorelines, and a range of digital elevation or image data derived from remote sensing platforms. The identification of a “shoreline” involves two stages: the first requires the selection and definition of a shoreline indicator feature, and the second is the detection of the chosen shoreline feature within the available data source. To date, the most common shoreline detection technique has been subjective visual interpretation. Recent photogrammetry, topographic data collection, and digital image-processing techniques now make it possible for the coastal investigator to use objective shoreline detection methods. The remaining challenge is to improve the quantitative and process-based understanding of these shoreline indicator features and their spatial relationship relative to the physical land–water boundary.