A few weeks ago a friend of mine excitedly explained her epic spring-break beach plans to me. I immediately questioned her on the beach she was visiting and its history of beach nourishment. Based upon her incredulous look, not everyone knows about beach nourishment. Though I don’t like to be a buzz-kill, I feel like I have to drop some knowledge on the ecosystem degradation caused by commercial beaches.
Beaches not only serve as a vacation hotspot for millions of tourists around the world, but also as important protections for people living and working close to coastlines. The severity of beach erosion differs from area to area depending on climate, tide patterns, class of sand, human intervention, and submerged currents. The loss of beach area can result in economic devastation for communities that rely on the health of their beaches.
Beach nourishment is the relocation of sediment to an eroding coastline in order to create a new beach or increase the width of an existing beach. Though this process does not stop erosion, the increased sand volume slows further deterioration of the beach itself. Because newly transplanted sand erodes up to three times faster than naturally occurring sand, the beach must again be renourished before the end of its “lifetime.” This is enough to protect businesses and other structures near the beach, but does not necessarily provide safe beaches for wildlife.
In order for beach nourishment to make a safe impact, the project must be carefully managed. Sediment that does not match the original sand particles is often used for nourishment. A “perfect match” is nearly impossible to find when considering both grain-size and sand composition. Even small differences in the size of sand particles can alter wave patterns on the beach, transforming its shape very quickly. During beach nourishment, the area resembles a construction zone. Bulldozers can bury marine life to destroy insects, turtles, and shorebirds. Plants that ironically help to fight natural erosion are uprooted or smothered with newly-added sand. The increased turbidity can also threaten vital nurseries for aquatic organisms, as displace sediment suffocates the vulnerable young.
Altering the natural geography of a beach can also prove hazardous. Beach inclines are often made steeper by beach nourishment, making it impossible for sea turtles to climb and lay their eggs. Other species that rely on natural formation of sand dunes can also find themselves without nesting grounds. On the other hand, beach renourishment offers additional area to valuable migration and breeding grounds for coastal birds. During beach nourishment, the area is destroyed, but the process also protects the existence of these areas in the long-term.