To many people, sandy beaches are the ultimate vacation spot. Whether it is the feeling of sand on our toes, sunlight on our skin, the sight of seashells littering the shores, or the sound of the crashing waves, beaches continually feed our senses. In turn, they invite us to ignore the chaos of everyday life, take a deep breath, and relax. What if we were to look beyond the use of beaches for fun in the sun? If we did, we would see that beaches provide many services to our society and to our environment.
Due to their physical make up and relative location, beaches protect coastal areas from intense wave energy. They act like a buffer when waves crash into their shores by absorbing excess energy. Events such as hurricanes, tropical cyclones, and tsunamis are capable of producing highly destructive waves. If they were to reach coastal cities uninhibited, these waves could cause serious damage to public and private property. They could also threaten the well-being of the people living in coastal areas.
Beaches are also habitats for a suite of unique creatures. Many of them have evolved to withstand the constant pressures present in coastal ecosystems. Intense sunlight, crashing waves, salt water, and tide-related droughts and floods are just a few challenges beach-dwelling animals constantly face. Sea birds, crabs, corals, sea stars, turtles, and urchins are some of the animals that rely on healthy beach systems to live, breed, and eat.
The wildlife that inhabit beaches are important to humans for many reasons. Their beauty is easy to appreciate, and makes snorkeling and scuba diving such fun activities. People also associate many of these animals with food. Healthy beaches provide us with nutrient-rich meat from oysters, fish, shrimp, and crabs, to name a few. Many coastal communities around the world depend on the ocean for the majority of their protein. In turn, beaches also support the livelihoods of many fisherman and aquaculturalists (people who farm aquatic plants and animals) globally.
Beaches are home to numerous sand-dwelling organisms as well. Historically, scientists thought that beaches had very little biological significance relative to other ecosystems. Over time though, researchers have begun to discover that beach sand, along with the tiny creatures living in it, play a role in regulating carbon and other nutrients in sea water. In other words, the countless little organisms (such as algae, bacteria, crustaceans, and fungi) serve as trash collectors to filter waste out of ocean water.
The filtering process is essential for maintaining the health of beach ecosystems. It begins as waves crash onto land. Once water hits the shore, it flows down and through the piles of sand grains with ease. Unlike pure water, ocean water contains lots of dissolved minerals and organic materials. In excess, these organic materials can be harmful to aquatic systems. They are made up of things like dead animals and fish waste. When the waste gets trapped within the sand, it is consumed by tiny organisms that live there. They then either store the atoms from consumed materials in their cells, or release them through gas into the atmosphere.
Clearly, beaches are places worthy of our admiration and respect. Healthy beaches offer us a great place to relax, play, and enjoy wildlife. They also supply us with delicious food, clean our ocean water, and protect our coasts from storms. Let’s maintain the quality and functionality of these environments!
By Mary Tiedeman, soil scientist