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Most beach sand comes from glacial erosion.
Eroding forces break down rocks into smaller particles. In the past, during glaciation, glacial rivers transported sand to the coast. Today, headlands and cliffs are eroded and sand is formed.
Looking at the colour of the sand can be a clue as to where the sand originates from. In Prince Edward Island it is easy to determine. The sand is red as the red sandstone that is seen exposed everywhere along the coast. In Nova Scotia there are white beaches, whereas the beaches in northeastern Atlantic Canada are darker in colour.
Sand is constantly on the move. In the summer, beaches are built and sandbars eroded; in the winter, the reverse happens.
Wind and water sort the sand.
Processes on a beach
see activities 23
Dunes are formed wherever large quantities of dry sand are exposed to wind.
Dunes have a tendency to wander. Wandering dunes are called 'active dunes.' As they move they can even cover roads or buildings. When they are unstable, little vegetation grows on them. It is too difficult for plants to get established.
The 'foreshore' is the sloping portion of the beach between high and low tide.
A 'berm' is nearly horizontal and is formed when the waves deposit sand. A storm berm can mark the highest limit of storm waves. Several berms can occur at spring and neap tide levels.
The 'back beach' or 'backshore' is rarely touched by wave action and ends at the edge of the first dune.
The 'active dune' or 'primary dune' is the first dune.
A 'swale' is the hollow between dunes, often close enough to the water table so that marsh plants or peatland plants can get established. Stagnant freshwater pools can develop.
'Fixed dunes' or 'secondary dunes' can follow, sometimes in great numbers.
'Blowouts' are holes in the dune scooped out by wind and/or water.
Currents on the beach act as agents of erosion and rebuilding. They carry sand and nutrients from one spot to another.
The shape of the beach front is influenced by different currents. The most common are longshore (along the beach) currents, refractive, and rip currents.
Unusually heavy winter ice cover can change or erode dunes and alter the shape of the beach, or it can protect the beach from the influence of wind and waves.
On the beach most freshwater percolates rapidly down into the substrate. Thus the surface is always dry. Evaporation on the surface can be rapid.
Ripples and dangerous currents
Ripples are a feature well known on beaches and sandflats. They are the result of an oscillation of the sand, created by wave action and tides. The ripple crests are transverse to the current direction.
The 'drag' on the ocean bottom that can be felt by swimmers is caused by rip currents. They are narrow currents moving at right angles away from the beach, after having been heaved against the shore. They can pull swimmers out to the open ocean.
The salinity in the inundated area of the beach varies only slightly. In depressions at the beachfront, when sea-water collects, salinity can rise sharply as the water evaporates.
Plants are constantly exposed to the wind. The wind carries salt spray and deposits it further inland on the plants. The exposure to salt prevents many organisms from living at the beach.
The Sea Rocket is an especially adapted plant that grows on the beach and can tolerate fairly high concentrations of salt.
Waves move and shift sand around to form a beach. The interaction of sediment and waves forms beaches. The interaction of sediment and wind forms dunes.
Sediments are transported to different places by water and wind depending on their size and density.
Sand shifts constantly. It can vary in colour dramatically, from the red beaches of Prince Edward Island to the almost white beaches of Nova Scotia. The colour of the sand can also affect the kinds of organisms that live on a beach, because they have to be camouflaged from their predators. Most organisms have some adaptability. Those that do not simply bury themselves.
Young (geologically speaking) sand usually consists of sharper particles not yet rounded off by wind and water as is the case with old sand. Airborne sand rounds more than water-borne sand.
Fine sand is carried away easily and compresses well. There are few spaces between particles. Once they settle they do not shift as readily.
Coarse sand stays behind and does not compress well. There is lots of airspace between particles for organisms to live in, but this sand shifts constantly. Irregularly shaped particles have large pore spaces in between and thus more surface area.
When creatures die the skeleton that remains is broken up. These parts consist mainly of calcium carbonate. Some sands consist mainly of calcium carbonate particles.
Sand can be made of small particles originating from erosion of rocks through water, chemicals, and temperature. Quartz sand is the most common on the East Coast, a result of the breakdown of granite or sandstone.
Some sand particles 'sing' when blown over the beach by high winds. Singing sands are a feature of the Basin Head sand dune system in eastern Prince Edward Island.
Along the beach shoreline the temperature changes with the tides and the seasons.
Without shelter from plants the sand can get so hot that people cannot walk on the beach with their bare feet. Below the surface the sand becomes cold quickly. At night the sand cools off rapidly due to the lack of a protecting plant cover.
On hot days the temperature can be high enough to coagulate blood proteins of organisms such as insects. As a result some beach creatures are nocturnal to avoid the heat of the day. Others spend most of the day in deep sand, where the temperature doesn't get too hot.
The tidal range determines the area of shore that is exposed to the air at any low tide.
In the intertidal area, where the sand is subject to the ebb and flow of the tides, the sand remains moist. In the upper range of the intertidal area, the sand may dry out and blow inland.
Spring tides reach high up on the beach. When they are combined with strong waves, they can cause wash-outs or breaches in the dunes.
The strongest waves on the beach are the ones that break on the surface (surf). They shift and sort the sand. Shifting sand hinders plants and animals from anchoring themselves.
Storms with high waves can cause blowouts (breaches). They can destroy parts of dunes, making the beach more unstable. However, this is a natural process. Where the sea-levels rise, there is a landward migration of the beach/dune system.
Large, high-energy waves in the fall and winter have a completely different influence than the low energy waves of summer. Storms in late summer and fall hurricanes contribute to the longest waves. In the fall and the winter waves are even more damaging. In the fall they cause erosion of the beach and dunes. In the summer the waves actually help the beach by bringing in more sand.
The wind is a mechanism for the transfer of energy.
Dunes are formed by the interaction of sand and wind.
Miscou Island dune system
On the west coast of Miscou Island in northeastern New Brunswick a unique dune system has formed, with more than 30 parallel dunes. The area is called Grande Plaine by residents and is a perfect place to study dune systems. The dunes have different heights and are not regularly spaced. They were first noted in 1905 by W.F. Ganong, a New Brunswick naturalist, who wrote several articles on the phenomenon.
On the Grande Plaine, succession in the dune system can be observed very well. There is a definite transition from open grass dunes to dunes that are even covered with forest, interspersed with hollows that show a different plant composition. Rare plants have been reported here, and the area is well known to botanists throughout New Brunswick. The dunes also provide evidence that the dune systems have moved toward the ocean. Remnants of Walrus, a once abundant species in northeastern New Brunswick, have been found in an area far away from the shoreline. Proof can also be found for rising sea-levels. You can observe the characteristically steep cliffs where the beach has been cut and forced to retreat.
There are good examples of well-developed and successive dune ridges throughout the Maritime provinces. In Nova Scotia, Pomquet Beach in Antigonish County has one of the best examples of dune ridges in the province with up to seven. Bouctouche spit in New Brunswick also has good examples. In Prince Edward Island, one of the largest and best-developed dune systems can be found at the Greenwich sand dune system on the north shore.
Ice, storms, and wind are not the only forces eroding and changing beaches. The rising sea-level causes a more frequent overwash and a gradual landward migration of the entire beach system.
Global warming has an accelerating effect on how much the sea-level rises. The ocean absorbs the increased heat in the atmosphere and warms up slightly, increasing the volume of water. Snowfields and glaciers melt, the amount of sea-water increases. A beach made up of loose sediment will move landward by 0.15 m per 1 mm rise in sea-level on, for example, the Northumberland shore.
|1 Herring Gull||2 Piping Plover|
|3 Great Black-backed Gull||4 Spotted Sandpiper|
|5 Common Tern||6 Horned Lark|
|7 Northern Gannet||8 Sand Shrimp|
|9 Winter flounder||10 Surf Clam|
|11 Capelin||12 Common Sand Dollar|
|13 American Sand Lance||14 Common Northern Moon Shell|
|15 Black Swallowtail||16 Sea Rocket|
|17 Beachgrass||18 Beach-Pea|
|19 Beach Wormwood|
Plant growth on beaches is limited to a few species. The plants that are able to grow here either need protection in the dunes from the harsh forces of the wind, or they have to be very well-adapted to the shifting sand, temperature, salt, and limited water supply. In general, you'll see very distinct zones on a beach.
Zonation of plants on the backshore
Filamentous algae can be found in great numbers on the mud exposed at low tide.
Seaweed is a type of algae and there are many different ones to discover. It is often found on the beach, washed ashore by the waves. The sand below the low tide line is too unstable and the water too turbulent for seaweed to grow. As a result, these plants grow in the subtidal zone below the low tide limit, where a more stable substrate is available. You can gather seaweed on the shore. It can be used as a source of food or for plant study.
Sandy beaches support productive and diverse micro-algal communities of species that are adapted to moving sand. They live between sand grains or attached to them.
Bayberry grows in the protection of the dunes. This shrub is also called Candle Berry. It contains a resin, which was used in candle making in earlier times.
Roses often bloom in profusion in the protection of the dunes.
Poison Ivy is rare on the New Brunswick coast. But it is a common plant in the dunes of Nova Scotia and on the off-shore islands of Prince Edward Island. Allergic reactions increase after each contact.
The Scotch Lovage, a member of the carrot family, is difficult to overlook. It grows very high in the Shelter of the dunes.
The Beach-Pea is a nitrogen fixer like other members of the pea family and thus brings usable nutrients to the sand. It can tolerate exposure to salt spray and low soil moisture.
Star-flowered False Solomon's-seal
The Star-flowered False Solomon's-seal is common in the dunes of New Brunswick and fairly rare in Nova Scotia.
The Seaside Goldenrod grows in the shelter of the dunes. It has bright yellow flowers in late summer.
Beach Wormwood is an introduced plant. It is easily identified by its silvery, hairy leaves. It grows together with Beachgrass.
Sea Rocket is a succulent plant that can grow at the strand line, one of the few plants that can survive here. Its leaves are thick and taste salty, the fruits look like little rockets.
Beachgrass is the most obvious plant of the dunes. It sends its extensive root systems everywhere. These roots can often be observed at breaks in the dunes. Beachgrass is the first plant that stabilizes the sand.
Rare in northeastern New Brunswick, this low shrub grows on the drier upper slopes of the dunes.
see activity 23
Beachgrass or Marram Grass (Ammophilia breviligulata) is the most important plant on the beach. It stabilizes the shifting sand and prepares it for further plant colonization. You'll see it mostly in the foredune where conditions are most severe.
Sea Lyme-Grass (Elymus arenarius) can be found growing with Beachgrass, and it also grows in coarser sand and sometimes even gravel. This grass can also be found in salt marshes, where the sand is mixed with mud.
Ammophilia comes from ammos (Greek for sand) and philos (Greek for loving). Beachgrass has to be covered by at least seven centimetres of sand over the year to be able to survive. Its rhizomes trap the sand like a very fine-meshed net. The amount of sand coverage stimulates the growth of Beachgrass. The grass sends out runners to cover more area. The dead plant material in the sand, the living rhizomes, and the living plants on the surface very effectively trap the sand and create a more stable environment. Beachgrass receives some nutrients from the salt spray.
In the beach ecosystem molluscs are found on the sandbars and mudflats.
Some molluscs feed by filtering water for tiny sources of food such as plankton and others are carnivores. Some will graze on microscopic algae. Others feed on detritus from dead animals and plants. They are an important source of food for other species such as fish and birds.
How do clams bury themselves?
A Clam buries itself by extending its foot in a tapered point into the sand. Then the foot expands and becomes an anchor. The clam pulls the rest of the body downward.
Different feeding techniques of clams
Common Northern Moon Shell
The Common Northern Moon Shell is a carnivore whose shells and sand collars can often be found on the beach. 10 cm.
The Razor Clam, found on the lower shore, is a filter feeder. It is 17.5 to 20 cm large and has two short siphons. At high tide it can be found just below the surface but it can dig down into the sand very fast.
The Gem Shell is also a filter feeder and only 4 mm in size, but it occurs in very dense populations. It does not have a veliger stage of larvae (plankton stage) but releases tiny clams directly into the water.
The Surf Clam is a filter feeder and the largest bivalve mollusc. It can get up to 17 to 20 cm large and pulls itself into the sand by its foot. It is laterally compressed and burrows just below the surface. Its siphons are short.
The Soft-shelled Clam possesses one long siphon, and it can bury deeper than the Surf Clam. It is more common in muddier sands. 10 cm.
The Common Northern Moon Shell
The Common Northern Moon Shell lives just below the water's surface, in low intertidal and subtidal zones. Moon shell egg masses can be found on the beach in summer. Sand collars protect the eggs from predators. Moon shells are predatory and eat clams and worms. They bore holes in clam shells with a 'radula,' which acts like a drill. A radula is the 'tongue' of molluscs, a horny strip that is continually renewed and has teeth on its surface.
see activity 33
Where moon shells are common, the number of worms and molluscs may decrease.
Rarely are we disturbed by biting insects on the beach. They're usually kept away by the wind. But when the wind stops blowing, mosquitoes from salt marshes, horse flies, and deer flies can become a nuisance.
Small flies feed on the detritus of the strand line and are in turn food for other creatures such as birds and shrews. Robins and warblers can be seen feeding on these insects.
Ants and spiders live in the dunes and the holes of sandwasps can often be observed in the sand.
Short-tailed Black Swallowtail
The Short-tailed Black Swallowtail is a common butterfly in the dunes. Its caterpillars feed on the leaves of Scotch Lovage and develop into large, black butterflies with yellow and white spots.
Crustaceans are a familiar group of organisms. Most of them are edible and quite visible in the sand, debris, and the water.
Sand Shrimps are lower shore carnivores that can be found at the seaweed, digging into the sand. They are about 9.9 mm long when mature.
Some amphipods get thrown up by waves and then feed on detritus. They dive back into the protection of the sand when the waves recede. Beach hoppers live in this zone and are around 3 cm large.
This common crab washes up on the beach or is caught in lobster traps. It feeds on dead animals but will also eat any live prey it can catch. To 13.1 cm.
The Sand Dollar mainly eats microscopic algae that are found in the sand. To 7.5 cm.
Marine worms occur in the intertidal zone. Some are carnivores, while others eat seaweed or detritus (non-living materials). Marine worms put organic matter back into circulation. They also provide food for a great variety of animals such as crustaceans, fish, and birds.
The red-lined worm is a predator that forages in the sand. To 30 cm.
The clam worm is a predator that 'smells clam meat.' It is used as bait. To 20 cm.
A mud worm lives in shallow water near the low tide line in a sand-covered tube. To 10 cm.
This worm-like creature is not a worm at all but belongs to the Hemichordata group. It is a lower shore scavenger. 15 cm.
The Lugworm is a U-shaped scavenging worm that burrows in the sand and lives on the middle shore. To 30 cm.
From the beach you can observe some species of flounders, Capelin, Atlantic Silverside and the American Sand Lance. Sand Lances are an important food source for Cod, Haddock, Pollock, Plaice, and Yellowtail Flounder. Winter Flounder are an important food source for seals, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, and cormorants. Capelin feed on plankton. Many bird species, fish, and marine mammals feed on capelin. The Atlantic Cod is presumed to be a main predator. Minke Whales and Fin Whales also feed extensively on Capelin.
American Sand Lance
The American Sand Lance is a small fish that can burrow several inches deep into the bottom above the low tide level. They can be observed looking out of their holes from time to time, perhaps verifying whether the water is coming back. They primarily feed on copepods, but also to a lesser extent on snails, worms, etc. To 15 cm.
The Smooth Flounder is the smallest of flounders and is found mainly in estuaries. It feeds on copepods, small shrimp, crabs, molluscs, etc. To 32.3 cm.
The exposed right side of the Winter Flounder can change in colour and colour pattern. This helps to camouflage against predators. Their name relates to the fact that they abandon warm waters in the summer, to return in the winter. They feed on molluscs, worms, crustaceans, and fish fry. To 50 cm.
Capelin is an offshore, cold water species that spawns on beaches. They spawn primarily on the northern coasts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, and the northeast shore of Cape Breton. To 20 cm.
The Atlantic Silverside is mainly a salt marsh and estuary species. But it can also be observed close to the beach shore. It feeds on plankton. To 13.7 cm.
Few birds use the beach for nesting. Among these are the Piping Plover, a small endangered bird. Horned Lark and Spotted Sandpiper, the Common Tern, Red-breasted Merganser, and several species of gulls make their nests in the grass of the dunes, where as the Piping Plover uses a shallow depression in the sand as a nest.
The genus name of the Horned Lark, 'Eremphila,' means desert-loving. They prefer to nest in the dry upper reaches of the beach.
This species is also known for its courtship displays. The bird will suddenly rise silently very high in the air where it will begin a high-pitched tinkling song as it circles for 15-20 minutes at a time. Then suddenly it drops to the ground with its wings closed. They breed on the northeast coast of New Brunswick and some winter along the coast of Nova Scotia while others fly farther south.
|Piping Plover||beach, sandflats, mudflats||marine worms, shore flies, beach hoppers, microscopic crustaceans|
|Semipalmated Plover||beach, sandflats, mudflats; abundant migrant; breeds in the Arctic and locally on dark cobble beaches in Eastern Canada||marine worms, small molluscs, small crustaceans, eggs of marine animals, insects|
|Semipalmated Sandpiper||nest in Arctic Tundra; abundant migrant; beaches, intertidal area||periwinkles, marine worms, amphipods|
|Spotted Sandpiper||adjacent to bodies of water, beaches, sand dunes||small fish, crustaceans, insects|
|Horned Lark||upper beach, sand dunes||seeds and insects|
|Common Tern||beaches, shorelines, shallow saltwater||Sand Lance, Pipefish, Gaspereau, sticklebacks, Mummichog, crustaceans|
During migration, the beach and adjacent mud and sandflats are very important feeding and resting grounds for shorebirds. Worms, molluscs, and small crustaceans in the sand and mud provide the food necessary to continue the migration.
Since shorebird species are very similar in appearance, they require time and patience to identify.
Bank Swallows often burrow into cliffs on sand dunes.
Other birds like Gannets, scoters, or Common Eiders can be observed from the shoreline, although they in general do not visit the beach.
Check the species list under birds for an idea of what birds you might find in your area.
The rate at which birds use up energy is very high. They have to eat large amounts of food, and often, in comparison to their body weight. As flying is an energy-intensive activity, their metabolic rate is of course high, and especially so during migration when they have to fly thousands of kilometres. Despite this, birds use energy far more efficiently than any plane or machine.
Birds use beaches and associated mud and sandflats for staging and resting during migration. Before they fly thousands of kilometres to South America or the southern United States, shorebirds will double the amount of fat in their body tissues: necessary fuel for the flight.
The Piping Plover is a small, pale-coloured, sparrow-sized endangered shorebird. They are often called the 'piper' because of their pipe-like call. 18 cm.
The Semipalmated Plover resembles the Piping Plover except for its darker back. 26-34 cm.
The Spotted Sandpiper is known for its constant tail bobbing and spotted belly. 19 cm.
The Horned Lark is known for its black ear tufts, whisker-like marks, and black collar. 18 cm.
The Common Tern is a swallow-like bird with pointed wings and a forked tail. 37 cm.
The Semipalmated Sandpiper has black legs and a short black bill. 16 cm.
A variety of mammals can be observed at the beach ecosystem. You can sometimes see fox, mice, shrews, raccoons, meadow voles or at least their tracks. Deer also come to the shoreline to feed on seaweed on the beach. Sometimes Grey Seals come onto beaches to rest.
Fox track on the beach
Animals and plants often get caught in storms, currents, and tides and get washed-up on the shore. These organisms for the most part do not live here, but come from the deeper ocean. You can find bits of bleached shell, pieces from crabs, lobsters, and snails. Mermaid's purses (the egg cases of skates) are often washed up. In the strand line you can find sea stars, beached jellyfish, dog whelk egg cases (a snail), and lots of seaweed.
Holes in driftwood often point to the work of Gribbles, a wood-boring amphipod.
Gribbles and shipworms: which is which?
Although both Gribbles and shipworms bore into wood they are not the same animals. Gribbles are related to shrimp; they feed on the fungus in the wood, not the wood. Shipworms are not worms but worm-like bivalves that bore into wood and eat the sawdust. They're more common in warm water but can be found in driftwood as far as Newfoundland.
The beach is not an easy place to live. Waves constantly pound the shore; wind desiccates plants and carries salt and sand inland; temperatures fluctuate during the course of a day; fresh water is not easy to come by; and the shifting sand leaves small organisms in constant danger of being crushed.
The plants and animals that live on the beach have to adapt, and they do so in ingenious ways. Beach plants, for example, have flexible leaves which bend with the wind. To avoid water loss their leaves are often leathery, small, waxy, thick or even hairy, and their tap-roots are long. Trees and shrubs show stunted growth. Animals in the intertidal area adapt to the forces of waves and the risk of drying out by burrowing.
Although sand is not a stable environment to live in, there are benthic animals (bottom dwellers), called the infauna, that live here. Water is held between the sand grains (interstitial water) and organisms can be found attached to the sand grains. These organisms are called meiofauna.
Leaves of plants have two instead of one palisade layer. This is the thick layer usually found on the upper side of the leaf to protect it from sun and heat, reduce evaporation and the risk of burning. Palisade layers on the underside of beach plants protect the leaves from radiation of the sunlight reflected in the sand. Many plants have leathery leaves, they are often waxy and thick or they curl up to avoid the loss of water.
The leaves of Beachgrass for example are very flexible so they can bend with the wind. Many dune plants can absorb moisture or nutrients from the salt spray.
Most beach and dune organisms are light-coloured. They do not carry melanin, the brown pigment. Thus they reflect radiation from the sun and avoid overheating. A light colour also serves as camouflage against predators.
The organisms that occur between high tide and low tide levels live in one of the most rigorous physical environments on Earth. A good solution to the surf force of the waves, changing temperature, and water loss is rapid burrowing. The burrows of some clams can be very deep. 'Swimmers' burrow temporarily in the sand. Suspension feeders (i.e. clams) extract plankton from sea-water. These burrows are usually not permanent because they would clog up with sand in the turbulent water.
Zooplankton have appendages to increase their surface area. They possess gas bladders (i.e. jellyfish) and store fats and oils to increase buoyancy. Jellyfish and Arrow Worms eliminate heavy ions from their bodies and exchange them for lighter chloride ions.
Birds fly or run ahead of advancing surf.
The American Sand Lance burrows with great speed into the sand and stays there during low tide.
The Piping Plover, which nests on the beach, is light in colour, which helps to reflect the sun. It cools down the eggs in its nest by dipping its wings in water, holding them over the nest and letting the water evaporate off the wings. The evaporation has a cooling effect on the air underneath the bird's wings.
Most animals on the beach are nocturnal to avoid the heat of the day.
Stunted growth is a way for many shrubs and trees to escape wind and salt spray. Trees often show abrasions, a sign of the sandblasting effect of the wind. Trees take on characteristic shapes when they grow close to the shore. In Newfoundland they are called tuckamore. This is also known as the krumholtz effect.
Diatoms, benthic dinoflagellates, cynobacteria and other microalgae that are responsible for the primary production in the sands are especially adapted to live between or on the sand grains.
Meiofauna are worms (roundworms or nematodes are the most common), crustaceans (copepods), and molluscs in their young stages that live between the sand grains. They have various feeding techniques. They in turn are a very important food source for other organisms such as birds or predatory crustaceans. The type of sand determines the diversity of the meiofauna and the numbers of organisms present. Diversity of these organisms can be very high if the spaces between the sand grains are large enough. Diversity is reduced when the sand is very fine and compacted.
Productivity on the beach is lower than adjacent ecosystems like estuaries, salt marshes, or mudflats. Most of a beach's primary production occurs on the mud and in sheltered areas. Contributors are phytoplankton in the water and blue-green algae on the mud. Organic matter is carried to the beach with the tides and currents from adjacent intertidal ecosystems, such as mudflats, estuaries, and salt marshes.
The beach ecosystem seems superficially lifeless at times, but small creatures are plentiful though hidden, and they in turn are food for others such as crustaceans and birds.
The species living in a beach ecosystem interact with each other and with species from other ecosystems. These interactions are mostly in the form of eating and being eaten. The beach is not a static and closed off place. Water is constantly circulating and carries with it many tiny plants, animals, and organic debris.
Arrow: indicates direction of food/energy
Beaches have high recreational value. Summers are short in the Maritime provinces, and beaches are popular. For residents of the coast, beaches are a part of their lives. Adjacent sand- and mudflats are used for clam digging a livelihood for many. In some areas people fish for Striped Bass.
Beaches have been a part of our lives for a long time and it is hard to believe that they could be in any danger.
The tourism industry is becoming more important in the region as other resource-based economies, such as fishing, are collapsing. This puts an increased pressure on beaches.
However, dunes with their cover of Beachgrass are a fragile environment. The more people use the beach improperly, the more fragile they become. Removal of sand from the dune has a damaging effect. With the next storm this area can expand and form a blowout (a washed over area). If the sand is too unstable, the grass will not necessarily resettle. This means that at the point where the blowout occurred, the dune is susceptible to even more damage. Among the biggest contributors to the destruction of dunes are sand removal and vehicle traffic. This is a serious problem along the beach ecosystems of Atlantic Canada.
As the habitat is destroyed, not only will it affect the many species that live here but also the land behind the dunes. The dunes provide a natural protection for the land behind our beaches, such as salt marshes, from the forces of winter storms and wind.
Vehicles passing over the beach front compact the sand. With this compaction, the organisms living between the grains can no longer live there and an important part of the food source for many other creatures is reduced or eliminated. Vehicles also crush eggs and young birds. Human disturbance has caused some species, such as terns and Piping Plovers, to decline.
When we litter our beaches with garbage, we cause danger not only to birds, fish, sea turtles, and mammals, but also to us. Birds and fish can get caught in abandoned nets; sea turtles swallow plastic bags mistaking them for jellyfish, their favourite food; and humans can easily cut themselves on broken glass or old cans.
Building, dredging, and some forms of shore protection also have detrimental effects on beaches.
In some areas the building of cottages in dunes is not only foolhardy but is outright dangerous.
Breakwaters can cause sand accumulation at one beach and erosion at another. Wharfs can have the same effect, as they change currents and slow them down enough that sand is deposited.
Dredging can have ongoing impacts on beaches by causing increased erosion.
Shore protection in front of properties stops erosion of land but also prevents new sand from feeding the beach, thus leading to reduced beach width and loss of habitat.
Throughout Atlantic Canada various organizations work on beach awareness and protection. With projects such as the Piper Project, SWEEP N.B. or work sponsored by the Clean Nova Scotia Foundation, the public becomes more aware of the fact that the beach is more than just sand and water.
In New Brunswick, for example, it is illegal to drive on the beach or dunes. Prince Edward Island also has similar restrictions in place. Nova Scotia also has some restrictions in place, but only on certain beaches.
Beach clean-ups have become an effective way to raise awareness about garbage. They also help to reduce the problems on the shore by making people aware of the importance of a healthy beach ecosystem.
Beaches are not only places for us to enjoy, but also an important ecosystem in the coastal zone. They provide a home for many plant and animal species and protect fragile areas behind the dunes from the extreme forces of wind and water. Their health is a responsibility we all share.