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USGS Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program

17-11. Coastal cliff vulnerability modeling

The collapse and retreat of cliffs is a significant hazard along the world's coastlines (Kennedy et al., 2014). In the U.S., the coasts of California, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Great Lakes are dominated by cliffs, and cliff failures put coastal populations at risk. With increases in sea level, intensity of extreme events, and continued human modifications of the coastal zone, rates of coastal cliff retreat will accelerate (Limber et al., 2018), and in some locations this has already been documented (Hurst et al., 2016).

Over the past several decades, progress has been made in developing models to understand coastal cliff evolution and potential future hazards, including long-term rates of change (see Limber et al., 2018 and references therein). However, most are relatively simple 1-D models driven by total water level conditions (e.g., sea level, tides, waves) that are time-averaged, and therefore do not resolve short time-scales or individual failure hazards. Further, these models typically rely on historical cliff top retreat rates that are based on only a few data points. Because of the complexity of cliff failure processes and the factors controlling them, models that forecast the short-term vulnerability and event- or seasonally-based response have been difficult to achieve, especially over large spatial scales.

On low-lying sandy coastlines, USGS Coastal/Marine Hazards and Resources Program (CMHRP) investment in coastal change hazard research has successfully advanced our ability to generate regional-scale, coastal hazard vulnerability forecasts including real-time predictions of coastal impacts (see However, equivalent forecasts do not yet exist for portions of the nation's highly populated coast where the geomorphology is dominated by coastal cliffs.

We seek a Mendenhall Fellow to advance our fundamental scientific understanding in the field of coastal change hazards. Research is expected to result in the development of capacity and tools to make accurate predictions of coastal hazards on cliffed coasts, both for improved understanding of long-term trends and providing accurate, event-based responses. Research to identify critical parameters for accurate slope failure prediction, as well as to understand complex feedbacks between processes of groundwater-driven slope failure, geology, geologic structure (e.g, jointing, faulting), and marine forcing are an integral part of the development of the capacity and tools such as models. 

The postdoctoral scientist will have the opportunity to engage a research team of both USGS scientists and academic collaborators, many of whom have decades of experience assessing coastal change hazards in a variety of geomorphic settings. In addition, the Fellow will have the opportunity to engage early and often with federal, state, and local stakeholders to integrate management needs and gear tool development for optimum use by managers, planners, and stakeholders. The research direction will be guided by both established science and management needs. 

Research under this Oportunity will also allow the postdoctoral fellow to engage with other, ongoing and complementary research programs within the USGS.  These include: the Coastal Climate Impacts project ( that is developing future forecasts of coastal erosion and flooding under different climate change scenarios; the Remote Sensing of Coastal Change Hazards project (, which is using innovative new remote sensing techniques to derive 3-dimensional models of coastal topography in Central California; and the National Coastal Change Hazards Program.

The approach and tools developed as part of this research should be applicable to a variety of cliffed coasts including California, the Pacific Northwest, the Arctic, and the Great Lakes, providing a truly national perspective on coastal slope failure vulnerabilities and hazards.

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisors, below, early in the application process to discuss project ideas.


Hurst, M.D., Rood, D.H., Ellis, M.A., Anderson, R.S. and Dornbusch, U., 2016. Recent acceleration in coastal cliff retreat rates on the south coast of Great Britain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(47), pp.13336-13341.

Kennedy, D.M., Stephenson, W.J. and Naylor, L.A. eds., 2014, August. Rock Coast Geomorphology: A Global Synthesis. Geological Society of London.

Limber, P.W., Barnard, P.L., Vitousek, S. and Erikson, L.H., 2018. A model ensemble for projecting multidecadal coastal cliff retreat during the 21st century. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 123, pp. 1566-1589.

Proposed Duty Station: St. Petersburg, FL; Santa Cruz, CA

Areas of Ph.D.: Coastal or marine geology, oceanography, civil engineering, or coastal engineering (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered)

Qualifications: Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications: Research Geologist; Research Oceanographer; Research Civil Engineer. (This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above. However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)

Research Advisor(s): Cheryl Hapke, (727) 502-8068,; Patrick Barnard, (831) 460-7556,; Jonathan Warrick, (831) 427-4748,; Li Erikson, (831) 460-7563,; Pat Limber (Coastal Carolina U), (843) 349-6487,; Adam Young (U California San Diego/Scripps Institution of Oceanography), (858) 822-3378,; Brian Collins, (650) 329-5466,

Human Resources Office Contact: Nina Ngo,, 703-648-7431

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