Anatomically, the head is the most prominent feature of the human body—and a headland, in geographic terms, is an equally bold promontory jutting far out from a coast. Virgil, in The Aeneid, emphasizes the loftiness of the feature in describing “the towering bluffs of Pachynum’s headland brow.” Headlands, with their accompanying bays or fjords, signal a coastline that has not yet succumbed entirely to the erosive energy of waves, which tend to concentrate on the most prominent coastal features. Headlands are found along rocky, geologically youthful coastlines: the edges of the Pacific Northwest provide a good example. Along this actively eroding coast, rivers and glaciers have carved rugged hills and valleys. With rising sea levels after the Ice Age, water encroached upon the land, filling valleys and creating bays and headlands. On volcanic islands, however, headlands may signal ancient erosion: On Kaua‘i, the oldest major island in the Hawaiian chain, streams have carved deep valleys in their run to the sea, producing dramatic headlands along the Napali Coast. In the nature of wave action against coasts, however, the rough shall be made smooth, and the Napali headlands will eventually give way to a coastline of straight cliffs.

Pamela Frierson