How are beaches restored?

For our July 1 Soils Matter blog, we discussed beaches and their benefit to humans and the environment. Beaches are classic vacation spots and habitats for unique plants and animals. They naturally filter waste from ocean water, provide people and wildlife with delicious seafood, and protect coastal communities from storms.

people walking on beach
Recreation is just one of the many services that beaches provide society. They also protect coastal cities from storm damage and provide habitat for seafood that we depend on. Credit: Morguefile

Despite their importance, beach ecosystems worldwide face many serious pressures. Several things threaten their health, functionality, and even existence. These include human-made events, like coastal development, offshore mining, and overfishing. But, natural events, like hurricanes and tsunamis, also pose a great threat to coastal environments.

Beach ecosystems respond to negative forces in many ways. Human development and severe storms often result in erosion and habitat loss. Various types of pollution include water acidification, water temperature rise, oil spills, sewage leaks, and sedimentation. These can cause loss of plant and animal life. Even overfishing, which may only directly effect a few animal species, has the potential to disrupt the balance of an entire ecosystem.

Human and natural pressures may continue to intensify. According to the United Nations Environment Program, 50% of the global population currently lives within 40 miles of the coast. By 2020, experts predict that this number will increase to nearly 75%! Global climate change too is a tremendous concern, as scientists expect it to induce rising sea levels, as well as more frequent and severe storms.

rocky beach with waves
Beaches can be made up of materials of all shapes and sizes. Coastlines made of large rocks and boulders are more resistant to storm damage than those made fine grained sands. Credit: Morguefile

With this news, one might ask, “What can be done to restore beaches that have been eroded or contaminated? And how can we protect them for future generations?”

In many cases, it is possible to restore coastlines that have been eroded by storms. The process of replenishing sand in depleted areas is called beach nourishment. Unfortunately, this process is expensive. New sand often is shipped to restoration sites from different locations. Wildlife can also be damaged during the process. Coastal societies may instead choose to build sea walls for storm protection, or relocate to areas of the coast that are less vulnerable to erosion and storm damage.

Beach clean-up, in response to oil spills and other contaminants, is expensive and complicated. The amount of restoration possible depends on the type of contaminant, the local climate, soil types affected, and the available budget. In cases where restoration is not possible, resource managers may instead set aside or create new wildlife areas to replace those damaged by pollutants. Click here to learn about oil spill cleanup in more detail.

With all restoration projects, understanding the local soils is tremendously useful. Through research, scientists gain insights into how coastal soils function and how vulnerable they are to disturbances. Studying soils also helps scientists learn about the types of plant life that individual soils can support.

This knowledge can then be used to create sustainable development strategies. These include setting aside and protecting the most sensitive or beneficial coastal ecosystems from human development. Understanding soil and plant relationships is also very useful to conservationists. It helps them design and implement “vegetative restoration” projects. You can find out more about mapping coastal soils for restoration here.

Beach ecosystems will continue to face tremendous pressures from natural weather events and human activities. For the sake of coastal societies and wildlife, we must work to protect and nurture these habitats. Luckily, we can use soil as a guide in making better decisions for future generations.

Answered by Mary Tiedeman, soil scientist, Florida International University

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