It’s summertime and one of my absolute favorite things is going to the beach and getting a big whiff of salty air in the green salt marshes! I love the look of a white beach with green plants and a blue sky and ocean! It’s the best.
But how do those plants in a sandy, salty, windy beach even survive? As a girl who grew up in the mountains, it seems amazing that plants can grow without rich, dark, organic soil and consistent access to fresh water.
On a beach, there are different sections, or layers of life. There is the first dune section, or embryo dune, that is closest to the ocean. These are very small sand dunes that form on washed up kelp or other organic material. Occasionally, plants will be able to grow and thrive on these dunes and typically they have very long and strong roots to be able to dig deep into the sandy soil. These plants are also able to survive even if their leaves become buried as sand washes over. This is different from inland forest trees that we may think of. If part of a tree trunk gets buried, this causes rot as the mulch or soil retains moisture and encourages bacterial growth.
Beach plants, like the sea grass shown here, tend to produce many seeds in order to increase their chances of success and these seeds have the amazing ability to float! As the ocean waves pull seeds away and push them back onto the beach, the seeds won’t sink and instead, will end up back on the beach where they can eventually germinate. Tall grasses are important at catching and holding sand as their many stems keep sand in place.
The next layer, or section, of sandy beach is called the Foredune. These sandy dunes get whipped around and changed all the time as the wind blows the dry sand all over the place. The plants that live here tend to be more succulent than those in the embryo dunes and have hairs that increase surface area of the leaves which helps them to retain moisture. Do you ever notice that beach plants tend to be light, bright green, as opposed to the dark green of forest plants? Dark colors absorb more sunlight (which is why you get hotter when you wear a black shirt in the summer) and light colors reflect sunlight. The light green and greyish color of beach plants prevents them from frying in the intense sunlight.
As you move farther back from the ocean, your plant life becomes more diverse. These dunes, called Backdunes, are stable dunes due to the amount of plant life holding them in place.As plants become more diverse and create habitat, animals can move in! Foxes can create little dens, birds and turtles find denser plants to make nests in, and smaller animals find shade from the hot sun.
Right now, the biggest threat to a healthy beach ecosystem is: Beach Grooming (large trucks or vehicles drive along the beach to make it safe for people and to remove trash), which flattens the sand and prevents plants from germinating, Coastal Development, and Climate Change. As sea levels rise, the embryo dunes get pushed farther back, yet there isn’t enough room for all of the dune layers in between the ocean and the developed land. As these beach ecosystems disappear, the threat of flooding increases since there aren’t plants to hold and build the sand up to create a barrier between the ocean and the people. Not only are humans impacted by this, but important marine and coastal animals are as well since their homes are disappearing!
During your beach trips this summer, protect these animals and their habitats by staying off of the dunes. You don’t want to squish germinating plants or disturb wildlife that have made their home there! Another way is to pick up any trash. Plastic, as we know, can get ingested by wildlife, but it can also pile up – creating the need for large machinery to drive up and down the beach to groom it!
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