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Conference Paper · June 2009

DOI: 10.1142/9789814282024_0075


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4 authors, including:

Tom Bruce Gerald Muller

The University of Edinburgh University of Southampton


William Allsop
The University of Edinburgh


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Tom Bruce1, Gerald Müller2, William Allsop3 and Andreas Kortenhaus4

Considerable attention has been paid to prediction of loads and overtopping at vertical
breakwaters / seawalls, with “switches” between “normal” and “enhanced” response
regimes being widely observed. Use of the most appropriate model requires a tool to
identify which regime prevails under given wave/structure conditions. Various regime
“discriminators” are available, but surprisingly, no direct comparison has been presented.
This paper examines and compares the discriminators available. It concludes that caution
must be exercised in assuming that a discriminator identified through measurements of
(e.g.) wave impacts can be applied to the (apparently corresponding) switch in (e.g.)
overtopping response. In particular, the association of the h* overtopping discriminator
simply with identification of the onset of breaking conditions is shown to be misleading.

The past 15 years has seen international research effort focussed on wave
loadings (e.g. EC MCS and PROVERBS; UK BWIMCOST) and overtopping
(e.g. UK VOWS and EC CLASH projects) at vertical breakwaters / seawalls. All
show the necessity of identifying whether waves will break (e.g. Figure 1) or
not (Figure 2), acknowledging that different processes occur under breaking
and non-breaking wave attack, necessitating different approaches to design.

Figure 1. “Violent” wave overtopping from an impulsive / breaking wave.

Figure 2. “Green water” wave overtopping from a non-impulsive / non-breaking wave.

School of Engineering & Electronics, University of Edinburgh, King’s Buildings, Edinburgh, EH9 3JL, UK
School of Civil Eng. & the Environment, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton, SO17 1BJ, UK
3 HR Wallingford, Howbery Park, Wallingford, Oxon, OX10 8BA, UK
4 Leichtweiß-Institute for Hydraulic Eng. & Water Resources, TU Braunschweig, Beethovenstr. 51a, D-38106

Braunschweig, Germany


Considerable attention has been paid to prediction of loads and overtopping

at vertical breakwaters / seawalls, with “switches” between “low” and
“enhanced” responses being widely observed. Use of the most appropriate
model requires a tool to identify which regime prevails under given
wave/structure conditions. Various regime “discriminators” are available, but
surprisingly, no direct comparison has been presented. This paper examines
and compares the discriminators available, leading to the conclusion that
(contrary to what might be hoped) caution must be exercised in assuming that a
discriminator identified through measurements of (e.g.) wave impacts can be
applied to the (apparently corresponding) switch in (e.g.) overtopping response.
In particular, the association of the h* overtopping discriminator simply with
identification of the onset of breaking conditions is shown to be misleading.
The paper proceeds by rehearsing the evidence for distinct changes in
“responses” (Section 2) – wave loading; wave overtopping; post-overtopping
effects such as throw speeds and downfalling pressures; toe scour – when the
wave-structure interaction shifts away from “simple” non-impulsive conditions.
Section 2 also includes a brief reprise of some of the key implications for design
– the consequences of practical concern that may result from the shift away
from non-impulsive conditions. Next, existing tools to discriminate between
response regimes are reviewed (in Section 3), leading to comparisons of these
regime discriminator tools (Section 4) and conclusions (Section 5).

2.1 Wave loadings
The importance for structure design and assessment of distinguishing
between different physical forms of wave action at a vertical breakwater had
begun to emerge clearly in the early 1990s (e.g. Oumeraci et al. 1993).
Extensive series of model tests under the EC MASTIII PROVERBS project
(Oumeraci et al, 1999) studied in detail wave loading characteristics (local
pressures, total forces and moments) resulting from impulsive and non-
impulsive waves at the front face of vertical breakwaters in detail.
An example of a pressure record taken from a transducer near still water
level on the front face of a vertical structure is shown in Figure 3, illustrating
the dramatically different form of loading experienced under breaking wave
attack than under non-impulsive (or “pulsating”) conditions.
The principal current method available to predict the characteristics of
impulsive pressures and forces comes from the PROVERBS project (Oumeraci
et al., 1999), although new advice is given by Cuomo & Allsop (2004).
The implications for design of the presence of impulsive wave loads remain
an issue of some interest and uncertainty. Lamberti et al. (1998) carried out
field experiments on the motion response of large, monolithic caisson
breakwaters to impulsive loadings (provided by controlled tug boat impact and

dropped sand bags). Their findings confirmed that the natural period of the
structure was very much longer than the very short-duration of the impact
loads, and therefore that large, monolithic structures barely “feel” these loads.
This conclusion is however, not true for smaller structural elements (e.g. crown
walls, or blocks in a blockwork structure. There is some evidence to suggest
that blocks may be removed directly by impulsive pressures (Bezuijen et al.,
2002), and that these pressures may propagate into the structure through
cracks, creating a further possible failure mechanism (e.g. Müller et al. 2003).
Relative pressure, p/rho g Hs




2 4 6 8 10 12 14

Relative time, t/Tm

Figure 3: Pressure record showing impacts, with maxima many times in excess of
pressures recorded for non-impulsive events (Allsop et al., 1996)

2.2 Wave overtopping

Wave overtopping at vertical walls in deep water where there is no wave
breaking takes the form of the water mass running up and flowing over the
crest of the structure. If however the water depth in front of the wall is smaller,
waves may break onto (or just in front of) the wall, causing a violent, almost
vertical up-rushing jet of discharge (Figure 1).
The principal implication for design of this “switch” to “impulsive” (or
“violent”) wave overtopping can be seen in Figure 4, which shows the (non-
dimensionalised) mean overtopping discharge as a function of the relative crest
freeboard. It is clear that, for large discharges (at low relative freeboards), the
physical form of the overtopping (violent or green water) has little influence on
the discharge. Moving to the right in the Figure, however, it is apparent that
the discharges under impulsive conditions (the curved lines) fall away much
less steeply with increase in relative freeboard than do those under green-water
conditions. For a relative freeboard Rc / Hm0 = 3, impulsive conditions give
discharges in excess of those under non-impulsive conditions by a full order of
magnitude, with the difference becoming greater with further increase in
Rc /Hm0.

3 0.5
dimensionless overtopping q/(gHm0 )


Allsop et
al, 1995

1.E-04 Hs/hs=0.9

Franco et al, 1994 Allsop et al, 1995
(non-impulsive) (non-impulsive)

0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4
relative freeboard Rc/Hm0

Figure 4: Dimensionless mean overtopping discharge as a function of relative crest

freeboard. The straight lines are for non-impulsive conditions (for a variety of
configurations); the curved lines are for impulsive conditions (for sop = 0.05) (From
EurOtop, 2007)

2.3 Post-overtopping effects

In Section 2.2, a switch in physical behaviour of the overtopping discharge
was described, and its implication for design in terms of influence on mean
discharges discussed briefly. Looking past the structure crest to the physical
processes that follow leads to consideration of “post-overtopping” effects. In
this setting, quite distinct regimes are also observed, apparently corresponding
to impulsive and non-impulsive wave regimes at the vertical wall. The UK
EPSRC VOWS project measured the vertical throw speeds resulting from wave
overtopping at vertical walls (Figure 5), finding that speeds of approximately
2−3 times the inshore wave celerity were reached in green water overtopping
flows, whereas a multiplier of 5−7 times was more appropriate for “violent”
The implication for design of these observations relates to the assessment
of direct hazard to personnel in the zone affected by the overtopping. It is clear
that the presence of the much higher speed flows / jets associated with violent
overtopping brings with it an enhanced direct hazard, together with the
possibility of a sudden onset, adding to the risk. Equally, there is an implication
for loadings experienced by structures just shoreward of the primary defence
such as secondary walls, though these loadings are not yet described in any
design codes or guidance.

max. dim'less vertical speed, uz/ci

0.0 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4
wave impulsiveness parameter, h*
Figure 5: Vertical “throw” speed of overtopped discharge (Bruce et al., 2002).







10 100 1000

Figure 6: Local pressures from down-falling water mass (y-axis) and the associated
pressure on the front face of the vertical structure (from Wolters et al., 2005)
A second, little-studied post-overtopping effect is the loading on the crown
deck of a structure due to the down-falling water mass after a violent
overtopping event. A study at small-scale (Bruce et al., 2001) suggested that
local pressures due to down-falling water could reach magnitudes comparable
to those measured on the front face of the structure during a wave impact. Later
studies at large-scale confirmed these findings (Figure 6) (Wolters et al, 2005).
Close inspection of Figure 6 reveals that the largest downfall pressures do not
result from the events giving the very largest front-face pressures (the most
violent wave impacts), but rather, they arise from very-nearly breaking waves
(akin to Peregrine’s “flip through” condition) whose up-rushing water mass is
less aerated, and is then less “cushioned” by this added compressibility on re-
impact with the crown deck.

2.4 Toe scour

The final response highlighted here is toe scouring in front of a vertical
wall. HR Wallingford / University of Southampton tests resulted in the
strongly-peaked behaviour seen in Figure 7, which shows that the scour depth
in front of the structure (non-dimensionalised by the incident wave height) is
highly sensitive to the form of the breaker expected (Pearce et al., 2006)

1.2 Spilling Spilling & Plunging Xie (1981)- Vertical wall test 1c
Breaker Impacts
Fowler (1992)- Vertical wall tests
1.0 Kraus & Smith (1994)- Vertical wall test ST_CO
HR Wallingford (2006a)- Blackpool field data
0.8 HR Wallingford (2006b)- Vertical wall tests
Best fit- flume datasets

Plunging and Pulsating




-0.02 0.00 0.02 0.04 0.06 0.08 0.10 0.12 0.14 0.16 0.18
h bd //LL m
t m

Figure 7: Variation of non-dimensional toe scour depth in front of vertical wall with
relative water depth (depth:wavelength) at the toe of the wall (after Pearce et al., 2006)


With the acceptance that quite different responses (with associated
implications for design or assessment) can result from the prevalence of
breaking / impulsive / violent vs non-breaking / non-impulsive / green-water
conditions at a vertical structure comes the requirement to have a tool or tools
to identify when such conditions might occur. Only if such a “discriminator”
tool is reliable, can the correct model for the subsequent response mode, or
regime be applied. This Section examines a number of such tools that exist in
the literature.
3.1 Discriminators based upon observation of wave breaking process
Goda (2000, Eq. 3.22) offers a methodology to predict the onset of
breaking on a plane, sloping beach in the absence of a structure. This is
presented primarily in the form of a design diagram showing the (non-
dimensional) limiting breaker height as a function of non-dimensional water
depth, for slopes from 1:10 to 1:50. An equation fitting these curves is given as

( )

= A 1 − exp − 1.5 1 + 15 tan 4 / 3 θ (1)

L0 L0


where θ is the angle of the slope above horizontal. Goda gives a range of 0.12 ≤
A ≤ 0.18 for the coefficient A for breaking in irregular seas. While this method

on its own would not be expected to be a reliable predictor of the onset of

breaking in front of a highly-reflective structure, it illustrates key physical
dependencies and is the basis of a method for vertical walls – see below.
3.2 Discriminators based upon measurements of wave loading
The PROVERBS project (Oumeraci et al., 1999) gives a “parameter map”
to identify wave / structure parameter combinations under which impact loads
can occur. This method was derived principally from analysis of large datasets
of pressure measurements taken (mostly) at small-scale. Individual loading
events were identified from pressure-time records, and impulsive events
discriminated by application of a criteria for maximum non-dimensional
pressure: Fh /( gh2) > 2.5 and Fhmax > 2.5Fhqs (McConnell & Kortenhaus, 1997).

For plain vertical walls (no berm), the criteria reduce to a simple relative wave
height cut-off:
H si
H s* ≡ < 0.35 (2)
where Hsi is the incident (spectral) significant wave height at the structure and
hs is the water depth at the wall. The effect of the foreshore slope is thus
incorporated implicitly into the value of Hsi , although this does not account for
the fact that different slopes can give rise to different ranges / probabilities of
breaker shapes. Criteria are also given for composite (bermed) structures.
Calabrese (1998) estimates the maximum height of non-breaking waves
(Hbc) at a vertical wall, based on extensive model data. The fit is based upon
Goda’s method (for no structure, Section 3.1), with the A parameter adjusted.
H bc 2π k b hs
= 0.1025 tanh( ) (3)
L pi L pi
where kb is an empirical factor derived from the equivalent berm width Beq,
kb = 0.0076 (Beq/d)2 – 0.1402(Beq/d) + 1; hs is the water depth at the toe of the
structure, and Lpi is the local wave length in the water depth hs.
According to Calabrese’s published data, this method seems to work very
well, but is less well-tested than either of the previous methods.
3.3 Discriminators based upon wave overtopping
Implicit in the overtopping design charts in (e.g.) Goda (2000) is
information on the onset of depth-induced wave breaking. Because these charts
have not been designed to identify this “switch”, they are not as well-used as
more explicit discriminators. Also, the range of steepnesses covered by the
design charts is limited to 0.017≤ so ≤ 0.036, making application of the charts
to some of the steeper seas around (e.g.) the North Sea coasts more
problematic. Despite this, these charts marked a huge step forward in
identifying sensitivity of overtopping response to incident wave conditions.

Despite the work of Goda, principal prediction tools for wave overtopping
at vertical structures continued to overlook this sensitivity (e.g. SPM, 1977)
until the publication by the Environment Agency of new guidance in the UK
(EA / Besley, 1999). Based upon extensive analysis of small-scale and field
data, the new method (first published in Allsop et al, 1995) showed a switch in
overtopping response governed by a (then new) parameter
hs 2π hs
h* ≡ . (4)
H si gTm2
with an “impulsive” formula giving best predictions of discharge for h*< 0.3.
3.4 Discriminators based upon post-overtopping effects
In Section 3.3, impulsive regimes were identified in the throw speed and in
the pressure due to downfalling water mass. For throw speed, it appears from
the graph of throw speed versus the h* parameter (Figure 5) that the switch into
the more violent regime occurs for h* < 0.2 (h* is defined in Equation 4)
For downfall pressures (Section 2.3) the extreme responses arise out of a
set of incident wave conditions narrowly-banded around waves that are just not
breaking. If more extensive studies had been possible, it seems likely that these
would lead to a further discriminator subtly different from any of the foregoing.
3.5 Hybrid / physically-rationalised discriminator
All of the discriminators presented above have in common the fact that
they are essentially single-equation fits to data and observation. A final class of
discriminator can be considered as one which identifies conditions for possible
wave breaking / impacts through a series of considerations of the physical
processes, as set out by Goda (1985) in the form of a flowchart, re-cast by
Allsop et al (1996). Examples of criteria which result in “little danger” of
impacts are “seabed slope < 1:50” and “steepness of equivalent deep water
wave < 0.03”. The advantage of this approach is its transparency, while
drawbacks include difficulty in incorporation into simple computer models, and
in adaptation to more complex geometries.

The principal aim of this study was to determine whether discriminators
are (more or less) comparable. In this section, comparisons are made between
discriminators described in Section 3.
4.1 Direct comparison in terms of incident wave conditions
First, the way in which a simple Hm0, Tm-1,0 space is divided into regions by
the key quantitative discriminators is assessed graphically in Figure 8. Similar
graphs can be drawn for other depths hs. This graph has some striking features:
• The extent to which the presence of the vertical wall enhances the zone for
breaking wave activity is apparent from comparison of the curves for Goda

(without structure) and Calabrese (adapted from Goda to include presence

of vertical, fully-reflective) structure.
• Calabrese’s and PROVERBS discriminators converge for longer waves,
with Calabrese giving more impulsive conditions for shorter waves.
• The overtopping-based discriminator (h*) shows behaviour which is
qualitatively as well as quantitatively quite distinct from the wave-loading-
based discriminators.
• The PROVERBS discriminator is independent of wave steepness; the
Calabrese (and Goda) discriminators suggest greater impulsive behaviour
than PROVERBS at higher steepnesses, whereas h* suggests the reverse.
hs= 5m
4.5 above curve predicted as impulsive

4.0 below curve predicted as non-impulsive

wave height at toe Hm0,toe [m]

3.5 Goda - no wall (1:10; A=0.12)

3.0 Goda - no wall (1:50; A=0.12)


h* = 0.3

4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
wave period Tm-1,0 [s]
Figure 8: Direct comparisons of a wave condition diagram (Hm0, Tm-1,0) for depth hs=5m,
with discriminators for “impulsive” (above that line) or “non-impulsive” (below it).

The explanation for this apparently divergent behaviour is not yet clear, but
this analysis suggests that each distinct response (e.g. wave loading or
overtopping) is differently sensitive to the input wave parameters. For example,
the apparently anomalous observation that the “impulsive” overtopping
formulation becomes most appropriate at longer wave conditions may disguise
a cause other than prevalence of wave impacts. It can be speculated that the
“impulsive” formulation (which generally gives larger discharges) is
appropriate less because of the prevalence of wave breaking and associated
violent overtopping, but more because the wave crests are increasingly long and
see larger volumes of water elevated above the structure crest per wave. Indeed,
reference to the overtopping response regime as “impulsive” may be
misleading, with “enhanced” being a more accurate term.

4.2 Success of loading-based discriminator in overtopping prediction

Further evidence that the overtopping-based h* discriminator is not simply
an indicator of wave breaking activity is gathered from a comparison of the
success of h* vs PROVERBS discriminators in selecting the correct overtopping
formula to use. The result of using both discriminators as the basis for model
data comparison (small-scale data from the VOWS project –Bruce et al., 2001)
shows that the overtopping-based h* discriminator performs noticeably better
than the wave loading-based PROVERBS discriminator (Figure 9). While the
majority of data is well-predicted using either discriminator (conditions that are
seen as “impulsive” or “non-impulsive” by both), there is a significant cluster
of points lying well above the line of perfect agreement where use of a less
appropriate discriminator gives under-predictions by factors of 10 to 100.

Rc/hs=1.67; 1:10
ratio, q measured:predicted [ - ]

Rc/hs=0.52; 1:10
Rc/hs=0.54; 1:50
Rc/hs=0.89; 1:50
q under-predicted

q over-predicted


0.00 0.10 0.20 0.30 0.40 0.50 0.60 0.70
wave impulsiveness parameter h* [ - ]
Figure 9: Success of overtopping-based h* discriminator (filled symbols) and loading-
based discriminator (open symbols) in predicting overtopping discharges. The circled
points are conditions for which use of the loading-based) discriminator would have
incorrectly given “non-impulsive” conditions, resulting in the under-prediction shown.

4.3 Success of overtopping discriminator in predicting breaking intensity

Finally, we consider the prediction of the intensity of breaking at a vertical
structure. The overtopping-based h* discriminator could be taken to suggest a
transition from non-impulsive to impulsive conditions for h* < 0.3. In turn, it is
tempting to associate values of h* much below 0.3 with conditions under which
breaking is increasingly frequent. While this may be true in a qualitative sense
under most conditions, inferring a higher percentage of impacts turns out to be
a mistake.

The percentage of impacts predicted by Calabrese’s method (Section 3.2),

under conditions for which it is expected to be reliable, is plotted against the h*
parameter in Figure 10. There is some correlation between the percentage of
impacts and h* (with lowest h* giving highest percentages of impacts, and a
general upper-left to lower-right trend), but there are many conditions lying in
the range 0.1 ≤ h* ≤ 0.3 with very low incidence of impacts (less than 1%).
Further, for conditions for which the “non-impulsive” overtopping prediction
formula works well (h* > 0.3), we might still expect to see in excess of 1% of
waves impacting.

h* < 0.3: impulsive h* > 0.3: non-impulsive

predicted % of impacts Pb x 100 [ % ]



Rc/hs=1.67; 1:10

0.10 Rc/hs=0.52; 1:10

Rc/hs=0.54; 1:50

Rc/hs=0.89; 1:50

0.00 0.10 0.20 0.30 0.40 0.50 0.60
wave impulsiveness parameter h* [ - ]
Figure 10: Evidence that the switch between non-impulsive and impulsive overtopping
formulae (moving right to left across h* = 0.3) is not directly associated with the onset
of impacts (as described by Calabrese’s method).

Responses (e.g. wave loading, overtopping) at vertical walls fall into two
regimes – often labelled impulsive and non-impulsive. With different methods
used in each regime, it is argued that focus is warranted on the discriminators
which determine the regime that prevails under given circumstances.
A number of discriminators are reviewed and then compared. Direct
comparison of standard methods shows marked differences between conditions
identified as being “impulsive” depending upon which discriminator is used.
Case-studies of the effectiveness of discriminators showed, contrary to what
might be hoped, that the discriminators are not automatically interchangeable
or transferable into settings other than that for which each was devised. In
particular, the association of the h* overtopping discriminator simply with
identification of the onset of breaking conditions is shown to be misleading.

The authors are particularly grateful to James Sutherland (HR
Wallingford) and Andrew Pearce (University of Southampton) for their
assistance in offering access to the most recent toe scour data.
The Edinburgh team acknowledge the support of the Scottish Funding
Council for the Joint Research Institute with the Heriot-Watt University, a part
of the Edinburgh Research Partnership.
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breakwaters, seawalls and low reflection alternatives, Chapter 4.7, MCS Project Final Report, Univ.
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breakwaters. Strategic Research Report SR 443, HR Wallingford, Wallingford
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Abstract acceptance number: 173


1st Author: Bruce, Tom ,

2nd Author: Müller, Gerald
3rd Author: Allsop, William
4th Author: Kortenhaus, Andreas

Breaking waves
Coastal structures
Wave loads

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