The Importance of Protecting Beach and Dune Ecosystems

It is summer, and to many, that means trips to the beach. People are traveling coast to coast just for a day in the sun. Unfortunately, many are unaware of how fragile and important our beaches are, with some beach goers being unaware of the damage they could be causing.

Coastal sand dunes are found in every continent except for Antarctica. Generally, they are located behind the sandy areas of beaches. These dunes are made up of three zones: the pioneer zone, the intermediate or scrub zone, and the back dune or forest zone. Dunes form when wind, rivers, or waves carry sediment from eroded land or animal skeletons, and that sediment is held together by vegetation. The ecosystems that coastal sand dunes create provide a plethora of uses. They protect inland communities from severe storms by absorbing the impacts, provide homes to many beach plant and animal species, and act as a natural barrier against wind and waves.

However, many forms of degradation are hurting dune ecosystems. Hurricanes impact the dunes the most, and it can take up to five years for dunes to recover from such events.  To make matters worse, global climate change is causing hurricanes to increase in intensity and occurrence. Sea levels are expected to rise due to an increase in ocean temperatures causing ice caps to melt, leading to a greater threat to the dune ecosystems. While hurricanes have a large impact on the dunes, the effect that humans are having is relatively worse.  Housing and building developments on or in the vicinity of dunes as well as service pipelines built over dunes weaken the roots of vegetation, causing erosion and overall destruction of dune wildlife. Even recreational use of beaches and sand dunes are a large factor. A lot of people don’t understand the importance and fragility of dune ecosystems. Many trample, pollute, litter, and even  drive over coastal sand dunes. These are only a few of the many forms of degradation. Others include overgrazing and invasive species.

Some groups are trying to help restore these ecosystems with native plant species and wildlife, though this is an extremely difficult feat. Attempts at restoration are only part of the solution. Until people are educated and aware, coastal sand dunes will continue to be harmed. 

It is important to protect dune ecosystems and many other ecosystems because too often they are being degraded or built upon. After years of degradation, it is near impossible to restore an ecosystem to its original state. Many natural ecosystems are at risk and even experiencing permanent damage. You can get involved through beach cleanups, spreading the awareness of dune importance and fragility, taking advantage of opportunities to participate in restoration, and incorporating habits into your lifestyle that reduce your carbon footprint. While it may seem like one person can’t make a huge difference, if everyone made an effort and rejected that mentality a lot could be done.

Ways You Can Help Protect Dunes:

  1. Use the boardwalk: Many beaches have a boardwalk over the dunes to the sandy part of the beach. It is important to use this to avoid trampling the plants.
  2. Don’t Litter: This goes for anywhere you travel. Don’t leave your trash on the beach or toss it to the dunes. It might seem convenient, but it hurts the ecosystem. Instead, try to bring a bag or leave extra room in one to carry your trash with you.
  3. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: A lot of factors contribute to the size of your carbon footprint, but small changes in your daily routine such as remembering to turn off the lights or walking instead of driving can help so much if everyone does their part.
  4. Get involved: Research ways you can get involved in your area. Find beach cleanup opportunities or ways you can participate in restoration practices.
  5. Educate Others: Help spread awareness of the importance of dune ecosystems.

Sources:

Perrow, Martin R, and A J. Davy. Handbook of Ecological Restoration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

“Coastal Dune Habitat Restoration Projects: Why Is Dune Restoration Important?” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/management/planning_dunerestoration_importance.htm

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