What are sand dunes? You hear people talk about them, you’re not allowed to walk on them, and some towns even offer guided tours of the dune areas! So what is the big deal?
You may not notice from day-to-day, but the beaches are always changing. The movement of the ocean continually takes sand away from the beach and deposits it somewhere else. Winds move the sand around, and dunes act as a buffer between the ocean, the beach, and the inland areas.
Sand dunes are mounds of dry sand that are built up by a combination of wind and natural vegetation. Dune grasses are vital in dune formation because they help trap the sand and have the ability to grow new stalks up through layers of sand. The dune plants may only grow a foot or so above the surface of the sand, but they have roots that reach deep for water. And these tiny dune plants create plenty of homes for insects, small birds, and small animals.
Think of it this way: the dunes are the first line of defense. A huge storm can send waves far up the beach; dunes protect everything further inland. The hardiest vegetation, like dune grasses, can survive the wind, sand, salt, and water that other plants can’t tolerate. These more delicate plants wouldn’t survive if the dunes were not in place to block the salt spray and ocean breezes.
Dunes are nature’s way of protecting the beaches and the inland areas. The sand of the barrier islands is always in motion. You may have read that the Wildwood beaches are actually growing by as much as 100 feet per year — sand from other beaches is being carried there by ocean currents. Other beaches are losing sand. Some communities fight the sand loss by dredging up sand from the ocean floor and using it to rebuild their beaches. Some communities build sea walls and jetties in hopes of protecting the beaches. But dunes are the natural way to reduce sand loss and protect inland vegetation from harsh oceanfront conditions.
You’ll notice that the beaches of south Jersey are wide and gently sloping. You can wade out farther here than on north Jersey beaches, and the waves are gentle. All this is thanks in large part to the network of dunes. Make time to visit Avalon and take a look at their dunes; Avalon has one of the last remaining high dune systems on the east coast.
What can you do to help keep the dunes safe when you visit the Jersey shore?
- Don’t climb, play, or dig on the dunes. Despite all they do to protect the beaches, they are very fragile! Just walking over a dune can cause irreparable damage.
- Obey posted rules. Most dunes have signs to remind you that you are not allowed to walk there.
- Use paths between the dunes for beach access — don’t climb over the dunes as a shortcut!
- Don’t pull out the vegetation. The long roots of the dune grasses and other plants are a large part of what holds the dune together.
- Don’t let pets climb or dig on the dunes.
- Don’t litter! It ruins the natural beauty of the beaches.
- Spread the word. Teach your family and friends about dunes and why they shouldn’t walk on them.