The hardiest of plants make their homes amongst the upper reaches of the beach, where they anchor the shifting sands and champion the dune’s valiant efforts to hold the sea at bay. While these plants are commendable for their rugged endurance and patient persistence, they are still vulnerable to many threats.
The most common threat to beach plants are humans and human-linked activities; these include:
- Recreational beach activities, e.g., walking, playing, and driving
- Beach grooming
- Beach armoring
- Beach nourishment
- Pollution, e.g., oil spills, sewage contamination, freshwater run-offs, etc.
Beach plants are the glue that holds the line between shifting beaches and solid land; they are integral to preserving the coastal ecosystems. The loss of beach plants would set in motion a devasting chain reaction. It’s necessary to understand who and what is endangering beach plants before coastal ecologists can devise an effective strategy to protect them.
How Do Beach Plants Survive The Hostile Seaside Conditions?
The beach is a gorgeous canvas for the drama of nature, but it is not a plant-friendly environment. Plants have to tolerate:
- Sandy soil
- Shifting dunes
- Salt-laden water
- High winds
- Drought and flooding
The beach is divided into sections according to the physical characteristics of the beach section. The uppermost part of the beach is called the coastal strand and is home to the hardiest beach plants.
Most beach plants have adapted to living in the loose, shifting sands by growing long deep taproots or nodal roots. These root systems allow the plants to establish an extensive “web” that holds the fickle sands together.
It may seem ironic that plants living near the largest body of water are in danger of dying from drought conditions. However, the harsh sun, high winds, and sandy soils that don’t retain moisture create the perfect conditions for plants to have a net loss of water.
Many species of succulents are adapted to living on beaches; their grey, blue leaves are perfect for reflecting the sun’s light, and the thick moisture-containing leaves protect the plant from dying of thirst!
Low-lying shrubs, succulents, and grasses can withstand the high winds due to their extensive root systems and lack of height.
Beach plants embody the ingenious adaptability of nature, but while these plants have evolved to live in a place few other plants can survive, they remain incredibly vulnerable to extinction. The high degree of adaptive specialization in beach plants precludes their ability to live and grow in alternative environments.
Why Are Beach Plants Important?
Beach plants are integral to the maintenance of coastal habitats; they provide valuable habitats to coastal wildlife and are directly linked to the health of beach dunes. These plants initiate the formation of dunes and help stabilize the shifting sands, thus preventing erosion and maintaining the dune structure.
Sand dunes are vital to the safety of humans, animals, and plants living along the sea’s boundary. These coastal features protect land inhabitants from:
- High winds
- In-land flooding
Five Of The Most Common Threats To Beach Plants
There are many threats to beach plants, but the five most common threats are:
- Human recreational activities
- Beach cleaning
- Beach armoring
- Beach nourishment
1. Recreational Activities
Beaches are a favorite spot for seaside recreational activities; who doesn’t enjoy lounging in the sun, playing in tide pools, and swimming in the sea? The economy of many coastal towns is reliant on seasonal holidaymakers who choose to spend their vacation at the seaside.
While the happy crowds of people are positive for the town’s economy, they are less favorable for the coastal vegetation. Many of the beach plants are lost due to mechanical damage. Mechanical damage to beach plants is caused by people walking, driving, or playing amongst the beach vegetation.
Specialist coastal ecologists have advised local authorities in beach towns to restrict the public’s access to the coastal strand to protect the native beach plants and coastal habitats.
2. Beach Cleaning (Grooming)
Beech cleaning, also known as beech grooming, is a process in which beaches are cleaned up for human use. While this does not sound negative, its effect on coastal habits is horrifying.
Beech grooming includes the wide-scale removal of kelp, driftwood, litter, and other offerings of the sea or remnants of human activity. In theory, this practice seems harmless until you realize that heavy industrial machinery is used to clean up the beeches.
The machines indiscriminately scoop up large bucketsful of sand, plants, and debris while driving over the delicate coastal plants. Beech grooming causes widespread destruction of beech vegetation.
On average, the unvegetated dry sand is four times wider on groomed beeches than on ungroomed beeches, and the quantity and diversity of beech vegetation are 3 to 15 times lower. The coastal strand’s seed banks, plant survival, and reproduction are drastically reduced when the beech is groomed.
A pristine tourist beech is a sure sign of beech grooming and a silent testament to the local devastation of coastal plants.
3. Beach Armoring
Coastal residents are understandably concerned about the rising sea levels and rapid beach erosion happening worldwide. To protect the seaside properties, coastal communities, municipalities, and property owners have come together and armored (i.e., reinforced) their beaches.
Beech armoring includes:
- Building sandbag walls (temporary measures)
- Installing sea walls
- Constructing offshore breakwaters that disrupt the energy of the waves, thereby reducing the wave’s impact on the beech
While beech armoring may protect the land behind the sandbags and seawall from erosion, it often increases erosion in front of the wall, along the enforced beach, and the neighboring coastal regions.
There is a devastating loss of natural habitats along the coastal strand and upper intertidal zones. The waves are deflected, and the beach narrows, increasing the sea’s impact on the beach and decreasing plant and animal biodiversity.
4. Beech Nourishment
Beach nourishment is another human intervention used to combat beach erosion. Instead of using concrete, steel, and brick structures, sand is brought in and added to existing dune structures.
However, beech nourishment is not much better for the local beech plants than beech armoring. Beech plants often grace the slopes of beach dunes; after all, these scrubby plants initiate dune formation and continue to stabilize their structure.
Despite the central role of beach plants in dune maintenance, the “imported” sediment is often deposited on top of the dune, crushing the plants underneath.
Most people are aware of the dangers of oil spills and litter to coastal wildlife and sea-dwelling animals. However, few people are aware of the pollution risks local plant life faces.
Freshwater run-offs, sewage, wastewater, and oil spills impact the soil’s nutrient profile. A reduction in the ground water’s salt level, an increase in bacteria, and a decrease in oxygen levels will change the biodiversity of the beach’s plants.
Native plants adapted to living in the local conditions will die off, while invasive species will flourish and eventually dominate the coastal vegetation. The change in vegetation diversity will, in turn, impact the wildlife, beach erosion, and neighboring coastal ecosystems.
Beach plants may seem like an unimportant side note to seaside tourists; however, their importance to coastal ecosystems cannot be understated. Many of the coastal features people enjoy are courtesy of these scrubby, unobtrusive plants.
Humans and human-linked activities are the most common threats to beach plants; thankfully, man-made problems can be solved through conscientious management, education, and changing attitudes and behavior.