Many of the world's coasts appear vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise. This paper assesses the application of a coastal sensitivity index (CSI) to the Illawarra coast, a relatively well-studied shoreline in southeast Australia. Nine variables, namely (a) rock type, (b) coastal slope (c) geomorphology (d) barrier type (e) shoreline exposure (f) shoreline change (g) relative sealevel rise (h) mean wave height and (j) mean tide range, were adopted in calculation of the CSI (the square root of the product of the ranked variables divided by the number of variables). Two new variables, shoreline exposure and barrier type, were trialled in this analysis and the extent to which these increased the discriminatory power of the index was assessed. Four iterations of the CSI were undertaken using different combinations of ranked variables for each of 105 cells in a grid template, and the index values derived were displayed based on quartiles, indicating sections of coast with very high, high, moderate and low sensitivity. Increasing the number of variables increased the discriminatory power of the index, but the broad pattern and the rank order were very similar for each of the iterations. Rocky and cliffed sections of coast are least sensitive whereas sandy beaches backed by low plains or dunes record the highest sensitivity. It is difficult to determine shoreline change on this coast, because individual storms result in substantial erosion of beaches, but there are prolonged subsequent periods of accretion and foredune rebuilding. Consequently this variable is not a good indicator of shoreline sensitivity and the index is unlikely to provide a clear basis for forecasting future recession of beaches. The results of this study provide a framework for coastal managers and planners to prioritize efforts to enhance the resilience or consider adaptation measures in the coastal zone within a study region. Sensitivity of the coast if considered in conjunction with other social factors may be an input into broader assessments of the overall vulnerability of coasts and their communities. © 2010 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.