Abstract Monitoring of frontal dune erosion and accretion on the Sefton coast in northwest England over the past 50 years has revealed significant spatial and temporal variations. Previous work has shown that the spatial variations primarily reflect longshore differences in beach and nearshore morphology, energy regime and sediment budget, but the causes of temporal variations have not previously been studied in detail. This paper presents the results of work carried out to test the hypothesis that a major cause of temporal variation is changes in the frequency and magnitude of storms, surges and resulting high tides. Dune toe erosion/accretion records dating from 1958 have been compared with tide gauge records at Liverpool and Heysham. Relatively high dune erosion rates at Formby Point 1958–1968 were associated with a relatively large number of storm tides. Slower erosion at Formby, and relatively rapid accretion in areas to the north and south, occurred during the 1970's and 1980's when there were relatively few major storm tides. After 1990 rates of dune erosion at Formby increased again, and dunes to the north and south experienced slower accretion. During this period high storm tides have been more frequent, and the annual number of hours with water levels above the critical level for dune erosion has increased significantly. An increase in the rate of mean sea-level rise at both Liverpool and Heysham is evident since 1990, but we conclude that this factor is of less importance than the occurrence of extreme high tides and wave action associated with storms. The incidence of extreme high tides shows an identifiable relationship with the lunar nodal tidal cycle, but the evidence indicates that meteorological forcing has also had a significant effect. Storms and surges in the eastern Irish Sea are associated with Atlantic depressions whose direction and rate of movement have a strong influence on wind speeds, wave energy and the height of surge tides. However, preliminary analysis has indicated only a modest relationship between dune erosion/accretion rates and the North Atlantic Oscillation index.