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Lag in response of coastal barrier-island retreat to sea-level rise


The response of coastal barrier islands to relative sea-level rise (SLR) is a long-debated issue. Over centennial and longer periods, regional barrier retreat is generally proportional to the rate of relative SLR. However, over multi-decadal timescales, this simplification does not hold. Field observations along the USA East Coast indicate that barrier retreat rate has at most increased by ~45% in the last ~100 years, despite a concurrent ≥200% increase in SLR rate. Using a coastal evolution model, we explain this observation by considering disequilibrium dynamics—the lag in barrier behaviour with respect to SLR. Here we show that modern barrier retreat rate is not controlled by recent SLR (last decades), but rather by the baseline SLR of the past centuries. The cumulative effect of the baseline SLR is to establish a potential retreat, which is then realized by storms and tidal processes in the following centuries. When SLR accelerates, the potential for retreat is first realized through removal of geomorphic capital. After several centuries, barrier retreat accelerates proportionally to the increase in SLR. As such, we predict a committed coastal response: even if SLR remains at present rates, barrier retreat in response to SLR will accelerate by ~50% within a century. The lag dynamics identified here are probably general, and should be included in predictions of barrier-system response to climate change.

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Fig. 1: Historical shoreline changes along the VBI between 1851 and 2017.
Fig. 2: Comparison of predicted and measured topobathymetry for the VBI.
Fig. 3: Predicted barrier island response to different increases in SLR rate.
Fig. 4: Predicted barrier-island retreat over the next 500 years.

Data availability

Georeferenced shapefiles of all digitized shorelines used in the Virginia Barrier Island shoreline-change analysis are available at

Code availability

The model source code (written in MATLAB) is available on the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System repository ( and on GitHub (


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We acknowledge L. J. Moore and P. C. Roos for constructive comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, and M. Robbins, G. D. Molino and E. A. Hein for assistance with shoreline-change analysis. This work is a contribution to IGCP Project 725 ‘Forecasting Coastal Change’ and is contribution 4097 of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, William & Mary.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



G.M. posed the questions, designed and initiated the study, and conducted all modelling. C.J.H. contributed field observations. G.M. and C.J.H. contributed to data analysis and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Giulio Mariotti.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Geoscience thanks Laura Moore and Pieter Roos for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Tom Richardson, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

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Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Predicted barrier island retreat, emphasizing the response to storm surges.

Simulation with Ro = 1.5 mm/yr and Ri = 1.5 mm/yr (as in Supplementary Video 5), aimed to show the dune dynamics in the equilibrated regime (that is, without SLR acceleration). A) Ten transects (a-j) are considered. B) Temporal evolution of the barrier crest at these eight transects. Red dashed lines indicate the average elevation of islands in the VBI system in the “low state” (equal to the beach berm, here set equal to 0 m) and the “high state” (approximately 1.5 m above the beach berm). The arrows on transect “d” point to erosion occurring after a major storm in year 255.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Sensitivity analysis with respect to storm surges.

A) Comparison of dune height distribution for the case with Ro = Ri = 1.5 mm/yr, and with different scale parameters for the storm surge, for the case with Ro = Ri = 1.5 mm/yr. B) Prediction of barrier retreat for different scale parameters for the storm surge. Case with Ri = 1.5 mm/yr and Ri = 4 mm/yr (and Ro = 1.5 mm/yr).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Model validation through comparison with Dauphin Island (AL, USA).

Comparison of the measured bathymetry of Dauphin Island, Alabama (USA) and the analogue bathymetry recreated by the CoastMorpho2D. Rectangles indicate the region showed in Supplementary Fig. 11.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Model validation through comparison with Passeri’s model.

Comparison of simulated bathymetric changes at Dauphin Island, Alabama (USA) after 10 years under different SLR steps and storm regimes. A) Simulations based on Passeri et al. (2020) B) Simulations with CoastMorpho2D for a realistic analogue.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Shoreline-change predictions for various increased SLR rates Ri and for different wave regimes (Hs, Tp) and tidal ranges (r).

All results are shown for the case of Ro = 1.5 mm/yr (thus for the same equilibrated retreat rate Φo). For each scenario (that is, each combination of wave energy and tidal range), the relaxation time α is calculated as best fit between the simplified model (Eq. 1) and the CoastMorpho2D predictions.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Predicted topobathymetric changes attributed to autogenic variability and SLR rate increase.

A) Simulated topobathymetric changes after 100 years of evolution, starting from the equilibrated conditions with Ro = 1.5 mm/yr (Fig. 3A) and with an increase in SLR rate to Ri = 4 mm/yr. B) Simulated changes due to autogenic variability in the equilibrated regime (calculated as in A but by keeping Ri = Ro = 1.5 mm/yr). An example of lateral channel migration is denoted. C) Changes due only to the increased rate of SLR, calculated as the difference between panel B and A. Examples of accreting ebb-tidal deltas and deepening tidal channels are noted.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Barrier island retreat predictions using analytical lag model.

Comparison of the predicted retreat rate using the analytical lag model (Eq. S4) in the case with an instantaneous increase in SLR rate at year 1930, and the cases in which SLR rate increased gradually from 1930 to 1970, from 1930 to 2010, and from 1900 to 2010. In all cases SLR is increased from Ro = 1.5 mm/yr to either Ri = 4.5 mm/yr (left panels) or Ri = 6.0 mm/yr (right panels). Applied SLR rates are shown in the top panels and system-wide retreat rates in the bottom panels. The relaxation time is set equal to 170 years, which is representative for the VBI (Fig. 4).

Extended Data Fig. 8 Alongshore variability in shoreline migration along the Virginia Barrier Islands.

A) Map of long-term (1851–2017) shoreline-change rates along each transect; numbers in parentheses following island names are average island-wide shoreline change rates for the 1851–2017 period. B-D) Shoreline change rates for the full time period and sample years, plotted by transect number. Positive values indicate landward movement.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Long-term shoreline changes at selected sites in the Virginia Barrier Islands.

Examples of long-term (1851–2017) shoreline changes along migrational (Metompkin), rotational (Hog), and progradational (Fisherman’s) islands. Shown in lower graph are mean (± standard error) and 10-year running average shoreline-change rate for each of the three islands shown above. Positive values indicate landward movement. Esri “World Imagery”, accessed February 10, 2022. Earthstar Geographics (TerraColor NextGen) imagery.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Discussion, Figs. 1–19 and Tables 1 and 2.

Supplementary Video 1

Evolution of the system during the last 7,000 years, with SLR rate equal to 20 mm yr−1 during the first 2,000 years and equal to 1.5 mm yr−1 in the last 5,000 years.

Supplementary Video 2

Evolution of the system during the last 7,000 years, with SLR rate equal to 20 mm yr−1 during the first 2,000 years and equal to 1 mm yr−1 in the last 5,000 years.

Supplementary Video 3

Evolution of the system during the last 7,000 years, with SLR rate equal to 20 mm yr−1 during the first 2,000 years and to equal to 0.5 mm yr−1 in the last 5,000 years.

Supplementary Video 4

Starting from the equilibrated regime with a SLR rate of 1.5 mm yr−1 (end of Video 1), evolution during the following 500 years for a SLR rate equal to 0 mm yr−1.

Supplementary Video 5

Starting from the equilibrated regime with a SLR rate of 1.5 mm yr−1 (end of Video 1), evolution during the following 500 years for a SLR rate equal to 1.5 mm yr−1.

Supplementary Video 6

Starting from the equilibrated regime with a SLR rate of 1.5 mm yr−1 (end of Video 1), evolution during the following 500 years for a SLR rate equal to 4 mm yr−1.

Supplementary Video 7

Starting from the equilibrated regime with a SLR rate of 1.5 mm yr−1 (end of Video 1), evolution during the following 500 years for a SLR rate equal to 7 mm yr−1.

Supplementary Video 8

Starting from the equilibrated regime with a SLR rate of 1.5 mm yr−1 (end of Video 1), evolution during the following 500 years for a SLR rate equal to 10 mm yr−1.

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Mariotti, G., Hein, C.J. Lag in response of coastal barrier-island retreat to sea-level rise. Nat. Geosci. 15, 633–638 (2022).

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