U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 02-332
Version 1.0
Online only

Slope Evolution at the Calvert Cliffs, Maryland -- Measuring the Change from Eroding Bluffs to Stable Slopes

By Martha Herzog,1 Curtis E. Larsen,2 and Michele McRae2

1 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
2 U.S. Geological Survey


Despite a long history of geomorphic studies, it is difficult to ascertain the time required for slopes to change from near vertical exposures to relatively stable slopes due to inadequate age control. Actively eroding coastal bluffs along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay provide a key for understanding the centennial-scale development of stable slopes from eroding bluff faces. The Calvert Cliffs are composed of sandy silts, silty sands, and clayey silts of Miocene-age. Active wave erosion at the bluff toes encourages rapid sloughing from bluff faces and maintains slope angles of 70-80 degrees and relatively constant bluff-retreat rates. Naturally stabilized slopes are preserved as a fossil bluff line inland from a prograding cuspate foreland at Cove Point. The foreland is migrating southward at a rate of ca. 1.5 m/yr. As it moves south, it progressively protects bluffs from wave action as new beaches are deposited at their toes. Wave erosion is reinitiated at the northern end of the complex as the landform passes. An incremental record of slope change is preserved along the fossil bluff line. 14C dating of swales between beach ridges shows the complex to span 1700 years of progressive migration history. We hypothesized that slopes would change from steep, eroding faces to low-angle slopes covered with vegetation and sought to document the rate of change. Our team measured slope angles at intervals along the fossil bluff line and dated profiles by interpolating 14C ages of adjacent beach ridges. There was no progressive decrease in slope with age. All slopes along the fossil bluff line were 30-40 degrees with a mean of 35 degrees. Constancy in slope angle suggests that steep, actively eroding bluffs were quickly changed to stable slopes by landslides and slumping once they were protected. Given the accuracy of our age control, we conclude that the time required to attain a stable slope under natural processes is less than one century. This indicates that once toe erosion is ended (naturally or through engineering) slopes are reduced to 35-degrees over a period of decades and not centuries.

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Contact: Inga Clark

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