Banner - Understanding the Mechanics of Seawall Failure

Seawall Failure Series – 1. Understanding the Mechanics of Seawall Failure

Body - Understanding the Mechanics of Seawall FailureSeawalls are continuously subjected to the relentless forces of nature. The integrity of these structures is challenged by the complex erosional processes and hydrostatic pressures they must withstand. Delving deep into the science underpinning seawall vulnerabilities provides invaluable insights for designing more resilient coastal protection systems. The enduring stability of seawalls is challenged by intricate physical processes.

Wave Action

Wave action stands at the forefront of erosional forces impacting seawalls. The dynamics of wave action on seawalls encompass several mechanisms:

  • Wave Impact and Reflection: As waves strike the seawall, they exert direct hydraulic forces, leading to potential structural stresses. Additionally, waves that reflect off the wall can interact with incoming waves, creating zones of turbulence and amplified hydrostatic pressures.
  • Wave Overtopping: In situations where waves breach the seawall’s crest, the overflow can lead to backside erosion or increased water pressures, further destabilizing the wall.
  • Wave Run-up and Drawdown: Waves that surge up the face of the seawall can induce a downward flow, termed “drawdown,” leading to scouring at the base of the wall – a primary cause for undermining and structural failure.

Tidal Movements

Tides, with their cyclical rise and fall, exert their own brand of stress on seawalls:

  • Tidal Erosion: Repeated tidal inundation can gradually erode the seawall’s foundational structures, especially if there are sedimentary voids or weaknesses that water can exploit.
  • Hydrostatic Pressures: As the tide rises, the hydrostatic pressure on the wall will decrease due to the pressure on the landward and waterside equalizing with the water level rising. When the tide recedes, the hydrostatic pressure will increase dramatically, particularly if the wall has limited drainage. This is due to the extended time it takes for the water on the landward to escape from the wall. Allowing the water to drain properly and at a faster rate will decrease the hydrostatic pressure.


Erosion can manifest in various forms, each presenting unique challenges:

  • Toe Erosion: The base or “toe” of the seawall, being in constant contact with both water and sediment, is highly susceptible to erosion. As sediments are displaced, voids form, compromising the wall’s stability.
  • Rear Erosion: This is often a consequence of wave overtopping or poor drainage. Water accumulating behind the wall can lead to soil erosion, creating pockets or channels that undermine the wall’s structural integrity.
  • Seepage Erosion: Groundwater or trapped water behind the wall can seep through porous materials or cracks, mobilizing sediments and leading to internal erosion pathways.

Hydrostatic Pressure

Hydrostatic pressure, the force exerted by fluids in response to gravitational forces, can be particularly detrimental to seawalls:

  • Pressure Build-up: Poor drainage or impermeable backfill materials can cause water to accumulate behind the seawall, increasing hydrostatic pressures. This pressure can push against the wall, straining its structural integrity.
  • Pressure Oscillations: Rapid changes in water levels, be it from waves or tides, can induce oscillatory hydrostatic pressures, which cyclically load and unload the seawall, leading to material fatigue over time.

A symphony of forces challenges the durability of seawalls. Understanding the multifaceted mechanics of wave action, tidal influences, erosion, and hydrostatic pressures is pivotal for evolving engineering strategies, practices, and solutions. Only through a comprehensive grasp of these dynamics can we aspire to design and repair seawalls that not only stand firm against nature’s onslaught but also thrive amidst its challenges.

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