Going with the flow or against the grain? The promise of vegetation for protecting beaches, dunes, and barrier islands from erosion

FEE 2015_cover-2

Rusty A Feagin, Jens Figlus, Julie C Zinnert, Jake Sigren, Marisa L Martínez4, Rodolfo Silva,
William K Smith, Daniel Cox, Donald R Young, and Gregory Carter 


Coastlines have traditionally been engineered to maintain structural stability and to protect property from storm-related damage, but their ability to endure will be challenged over the next century. The use of vegetation to reduce erosion on ocean-facing mainland and barrier island shorelines – including the sand dunes and beaches on these islands – could be part of a more flexible strategy. Although there is growing enthusiasm for using vegetation for this purpose, empirical data supporting this approach are lacking. Here, we identify the potential roles of vegetation in coastal protection, including the capture of sediment, ecological succession, and the building of islands, dunes, and beaches; the development of wave-resistant soils by increasing effective grain size and sedimentary cohesion; the ability of aboveground architecture to attenuate waves and impede through-flow; the capability of roots to bind sediments subjected to wave action; and the alteration of coastline resiliency by plant structures and genetic traits. We conclude that ecological and engineering practices must be combined in order to develop a sustainable, realistic, and integrated coastal protection strategy.