Red X iconGreen tick iconYellow tick icon

MikeHilton-headAssociate Professor
Senior Environmental Management Adviser


Richardson Building, room 4C16
Office Hours: email to make an appointment
Tel +64 3 479 8778


Research interests

My research is primarily concerned with the geomorphology and management of coasts, with a focus on aeolian (wind-blown) coastal systems. I study the form and function of coastal dunes and dune ecology at all latitudes, from the cold temperate to equatorial latitudes.  I have a particular interest in foredunes, since these systems lie at the interface between land and see and their management is germane to the wellbeing of coastal communities and the conservation of biodiversity.

I have over 21 years in the restoration of coastal dunes systems, which in southern New Zealand includes the management of invasive plant species. The world's largest dune restoration dune program is based on Stewart Island and I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to have worked with the Department of Conservation and over 25 postgraduate students on a range of associated research problems.

I have secondary interests in the geomorphology of coral sand cays and the management of tropical resources. I was involved in these themes while at the National University of Singapore (1992-1995) and I have pursued research in the Maldives since February 2017. I am particularly interested in the geography of small coral sand islands and their formation and dynamics. Finally, I maintain a strong interest in environmental policy, particularly coastal policy.

Key research questions:

  1. What processes determine rates and patterns of sand deposition and erosion in foredunes.  I am currently examining the impact changing wind directionality will have on foredune/dune system development?
  2. What impact do alien sand-binding species have on dune morphology, dune ecology and dune system development in temperate dune systems?  And what are the consequences of releasing this sand when restoration involves de-vegetation?
  3. How will natural and modified dune systems respond to future environmental change, particularly eustatic sea-level rise and increased storm frequency/severity due to global warming?
  4. How can dune systems on developed (metropolitan) coasts be engineered to maximize ecosystem services, including hazard management, amenity value and biodiversity?

Current research projects

Coral sand cay formation in the Maldives
Coral sand cays form on reef platforms in the atoll lagoons of the Maldives. They are important to the conservation of biodiversity, but are also used as a source of sand, fishing, sites for resort development and related tourist activities. Little is known about how they form – which appears to involve the interaction of oceanographic, geomorphic and botanical processes. This work has demonstrated that aeolian processes contribute to coral sand cay accretion and groundwater system development, which in turn supports plant colonisation. Islands are still forming despite global environmental change and work over the next few years seeks to understand the antecedent conditions for island formation vegetation and stabilisation.

Strategies for managing foredunes on metropolitan coasts
At least five highly invasive plants have been intentionally and accidentally introduced on the temperate dune systems of Australia since European colonisation. These have dispersed widely through various mechanisms and formed large, stable, foredunes. How will these foredunes respond to environmental change, including eustatic sea-level rise. What strategies can be employed to manage foredunes to enhance community resilience to climate change forcing?

Dune system restoration
Marram grass usually establishes a dense vegetation cover that tends to halt sedimentation and dune movement in transgressive dune systems and build relatively continuous and massive foredunes. The impact of removing marram grass using herbicide applied from helicopters and ground vehicles has been studied on Stewart Island (Rakiura) since 1999, when Department of Conservation operations commenced. These impacts relate to the nature of the dune flora, stability of landforms, change in habitat and, in general, understanding the natural character of dune systems in southern New Zealand. This project has, to date, supported 25 postgraduate theses and dissertations. The current focus is on the rate of foredune erosion following marram grass eradication and the implications of foredune restoration for dune system development and dune ecology.

See Mike's Further research interests page

Postgraduate supervision

Current postgraduate supervision

  • Minh Duc Nguyen – Flow steering and sand transport through engineered foredune notches. Doctor of Philosophy, co-supervisor.
  • Dylan Cliff – Environmental impact assessment. Master of Planning, co-supervisor.
  • Simon Petrie – soil development and plant succession on sand cays in atoll lagoons in the Maldives. Master of Science in Environmental Management, primary supervisor.
  • Megan Hankey – dune system development following foredune destabilisation, Mason Bay, Stewart Island. Master of Science in Environmental Management, primary supervisor.

Recent postgraduate supervision


  • Nomura, M. Past and current drivers of species climatic niches and geographic distributions. Doctor of Philosophy, University of Otago (2019), co-supervisor.
  • Chen, B. Beach Gravel Abrasion. Doctor of Philosophy, University of Otago (2014), co-supervisor.
  • Konlechner, T. Marine dispersal of Ammophila arenaria. Doctor of Philosophy, University of Otago (2012), co-supervisor.
  • Hetherington, J. Dune vegetation restoration following Lupinus arboreus eradication. Doctor of Philosophy, University of Otago (2011), co-supervisor.
  • Pattanapol, W. Wind flow over complex topography. Doctor of Philosophy, University of Otago (2010), co-supervisor.

Master of Science / Master of Applied Science

  • Borrie, D. Aeolian sedimentation and small island development, Maldives. Master of Science (2019), primary supervisor.
  • Adam, R.  Storm-forced shoreline dynamics in southern New Zealand. Master of Science (2019), primary supervisor.
  • Simons-Smith, T. Wind flow and sediment transport through three morphologically different foredune notches, St Kilda, Dunedin. Master of Science (2017), primary supervisor.
  • Moloney, J. G. Digital surface models and feature mapping from low cost UAV photography, Master of Science in Environmental Management (Distinction), University of Otago (2017), primary supervisor.
  • Buckley, E. Sedimentation and dune development following foredune restoration, Mason Bay, Stewart Island. Master of Science, University of Otago (2015), primary supervisor.
  • Lyttle, K. (MSciComm). The perception of dune restoration programmes. Master of Science and Communication, University of Otago (2014), co-supervisor.
  • MacLachlan, K.Temporal and spatial dynamics of the seed bank of Ammophila arenaria (marram grass). Master of Science, University of Otago (2014), primary supervisor.
  • Fordyce, E. Sea-level rise and groundwater levels in South Dunedin. Master of Applied Science, University of Otago (2014), co-supervisor.
  • Kelly, M. Marram-forced foredune progradation in southern New Zealand. Master of Science, University of Otago (2012), primary supervisor.
  • Lim, D. The importance of seed in the invasion of active dune systems by marram grass (Ammophila arenaia). Master of Applied Science, University of Otago (2010), primary supervisor.

Master of Planning

  • Cummins, J. The decision to armour or move low-lying coastal roads. Master of Planning, University of Otago (2015), primary supervisor.
  • Scouller, A. An Evaluation of Coastal Setback Methodologies in New Zealand. Master of Planning (Credit), University of Otago (2010), primary supervisor.

Postgraduate supervision (1995–2009)


Petrie, S. B., Hilton, M. J., Konlechner, T. M., & Borrie, D. R. (2023). Does tidal phase determine successful plant colonisation of atoll lagoon islands in the Maldives? Estuarine, Coastal & Shelf Science, 293, 108480. doi: 10.1016/j.ecss.2023.108480

Nguyen, D., Wakes, S., & Hilton, M. (2022). Using CFD to examine the effects of backdune morphology on the flow dynamics behind excavated foredune notches. Proceedings of the 10th Fluids in New Zealand (FiNZ) Workshop. (pp. 34). Retrieved from

Konlechner, T. M., & Hilton, M. J. (2022). Post-disturbance evolution of a prograded foredune barrier during a sustained dynamic restoration project: The role of wind speed, wind direction and vegetation. Earth Surface Processes & Landforms, 47, 3435-3452. doi: 10.1002/esp.5466

Nguyen, D., Hilton, M., & Wakes, S. (2022). Wind flow dynamics and sand deposition behind excavated foredune notches on developed coasts. Earth Surface Processes & Landforms, 47, 1698-1719. doi: 10.1002/esp.5341

Nguyen, D., Hilton, M., & Wakes, S. (2022). Aeolian sand transport thresholds in excavated foredune notches. Earth Surface Processes & Landforms, 47, 553-568. doi: 10.1002/esp.5271

Back to top