U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 02-331
Version 1.0
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Historic Bluff Retreat and Stabilization at Flag Harbor, Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

By Inga Clark, Curtis E. Larsen, and Michele McRae


Studies of bluff erosion and slope stability along the western shore of Chesapeake Bay suggest relative evolution from steep, eroding coastal bluffs to stable slopes at angles of repose ca. 35 degrees over decades. Because of the dating methods in those studies, it was impossible to precisely define rates of change. The present study provides historic age control. A pair of small harbor structures were constructed in the early 1950's at Chesapeake Beach, MD to maintain a dredged channel to a small marina occupying a ravine in the Calvert Cliffs. Prior to construction, this section of shoreline was comprised of eroding steep bluffs cut into Miocene-age sediments. Downdrift erosion is now apparent south of the structures as is updrift deposition behind the northern jetty. Since construction the updrift sand body has prograded northward and progressively deposited protective beaches along the toes of the bluffs. Former eroding bluffs nearest the harbor are now stable, vegetated slopes at angles near 35 degrees. Slope angles widen to the north and to the northern limit of the sand body. Beyond this are eroding bluffs standing at angles of 70-80 degrees. The relative time required for eroding bluffs to reach stability is estimated by interpolating the distance and time for the sand body to prograde northward since harbor construction. We measured slope angles at intervals northward from the updrift structure for a distance of 2000 feet. A least squares regression of slope angle vs distance showed progressive decrease in angle from north to south. Actively eroding 70-80 degree bluffs gave way to vegetated, but slumping slopes, and finally to stable 35-degree slopes at the harbor. A relationship between time and distance along the shore allowed us to estimate a stabilization time for this location of 35-40 years. The shortness of this time scale allows us to suggest that attempts to artificially stabilize eroding bluffs along this coast is not a simple task of protecting the toes of slopes from wave action. Once shoreline retreat ends, sloughing of sediment from bluff faces gives way to longer-term landslide processes. The bluff top recedes until a stable 35-degree slope is attained. Thus, simple shoreline protection methods may not preserve property at the bluff edge.

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Contact: Inga Clark

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