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Coastal Sand Ecosystems

Program Leads
Ian Walker
University of Victoria
Associate Professor
Derek Heathfield
Hakai Science
Program Summary

The CSE is a team of interested researchers working on various sub-projects that explore the biophysical processes within, connections between, and ecological and/or geomorphic responses of sub-tidal (nearshore), inter-tidal (foreshore), and supra-tidal (backshore) components of coastal sand ecosystems. Our activities will include short-term research and experimentation, and more long-term monitoring of key environmental attributes in these systems. As such, we strive to develop strong research synergies across a variety of disciplines, including: ecology, soil science, biogeochemistry, microbiology, marine biology, and geomorphology. Together, individual projects will offer a wide range of scope and objective with a collective goal to address truly novel questions/hypotheses. Through this collaborative process, we intend to further expose and understand the highly dynamic and complex Coastal Sand Ecosystems of the BC coast.

Figure 1. West Beach on Calvert Island, BC. An example of the CSE, from nearshore marine systems, to the beach foreshore, to the vegetated backshore dune system. Photo: Dan Shugar
Figure 2. Oblique airphoto of West Beach, Calvert Island. Photo: Ian Walker

The coastal sand ecosystem (CSE) can be defined as the terrestrial-marine interface in which sand is the dominant substrate. More specifically, the CSE is characterized by the terrestrial and intertidal portion of beaches, spits, and dunes which are structured and modified by local disturbance regimes. Mechanisms such as tides, storm surges, waves, and sediment movement collaborate to shape and modify sedimentary coasts into a highly dynamic, unique feature British Columbia’s coastline. Although the unifying characteristic of the CSE is a predominately sand substrate, incipient to established vegetation communities, wetlands, and bluffs are all common components of coastal sand ecosystems in British Columbia.

Figure 3. Coastal sand dunes represent a proportionally rare ecosystem on BC’s coast, as such many CSE dunes are protected. Photo: Ian Walker

As the majority of British Columbia’s coast is dominated by rock shorelines, the CSE represents a unique and understudied component of the BC coast. Coastal sand ecosystems make up approximately 120,285 sq. km of BC’s coast, extending from the tip of Graham Island to southern Vancouver Island (Page et al. 2011). The CSE can be partitioned into four distinct zones: 1) the nearshore zone where waves interact with the substrate and begin to shoal; 2) the intertidal (foreshore) beach where tidal incursions, wave runup, and swash processes occur on predominantly sandy substrate; 3) the modern foredune complex at the back of the supratidal beach where grassy plant communities and large woody debris (LWD) interact biogeomorphically; and 4) the relict dune zone landward of the foredune that is stabilized heavily by dense coastal forest communities. These four zones are distinct in their features and characteristics, but the interaction of biophysical processes within and between these zones is the primary driver of CSE landscape development.

Figure 4. Overview of the CSE on West Beach, Calvert Island BC. The CSE includes the nearshore, intertidal, modern and relict dune zones. Map: Derek Heathfield

The CSE program aims to explore biogeomorphic processes and interactions within and between all zones (nearshore, foreshore, backshore) of sandy ecosystems on Calvert Island, British Columbia. We recognize the wide range of temporal and spatial scales that these systems and processes operate on and, as such, the CSE research program will follow a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) protocol that will be enhanced by short-term experiments. The principal objective of the program is to explore novel research questions that improve our understanding of CSE dynamics and evolution via strong interdisciplinary collaboration amongst ecologists, soil scientists, biogeochemists, microbiologists, marine biologists, oceanographers, and geomorphologists.

Our specific research questions are as follows:

  1. Sand is an important substrate of the nearshore zone of the CSE in coastal British Columbia, but exactly where does it come from (glacial origins, local weathering, littoral transport from offshore)? What is the provenance and production rate of sands on Calvert Island?
  2. What controls the geomorphic form and dynamics of embayed beaches? How does the geomorphology of embayed beaches vary seasonally? What impact will climate variability and change impacts have on the CSE?
  3. How does long-term soil evolution influence CSE physical and ecological development?
  4. What is the spatial variation of microbial communities throughout the CSE? What kinds of associations exist between meiofaunal and microbial organisms (e.g., predator-prey relationships and symbiotic relationships) in the CSE?

How does intertidal spawning amongst forage fish communities vary depending on physical beach processes, such as longshore drift?

Study Area

CSE associated research is focussed on northwest Calvert Island on BC’s central coast (Fig. 5). Specifically, sedimentary coasts from north beach south to 3-mile beach are under study. This provides a unique research forum, as the distinct clustering of small, embayed or ‘pocket’ beaches, coupled with the more open stretch form at 3-mile beach provides an excellent, focussed study region given ranges in beach aspect, size, and associated ecosystem attributes. Additionally, containing the spatial scope of CSE research to Calvert Island provides more interdisciplinary collaboration with other Hakai Institute programs. 

CSE on BC’s central coast represents a key knowledge gap in the provincial context. A major advantage to studying on Calvert Island is the comparative pristineness to that of the southern BC coast (lacking invasive species, limited human development or disturbance, etc.).

Figure 5. A) Location of Calvert Island, BC; B) Calvert and Hecate Islands, south of Hakai Pass. C) Prominent glacial features, modern beach deposits, and dune and beach ridge complexes superimposed on a 2 m lidar hillshaded digital elevation model of no
Research Elements
Beach-Dune Eco-morphodynamics
Beach-Dune Eco-morphodynamics on Contrasting Pocket Beaches
Beach Micro-organisms
Beach Microflora, Microfauna and Meiofauna
CSE soil change
Understanding long-term soil change in coastal sandy ecosystems
Intertidal Spawning
Sand & Bedrock Erosion
Origin of sand and bedrock erosion rates, Calvert Island
Paul Sanborn, University of Northern British Columbia
Trevor Haynes, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Patrick Keeling, University of British Columbia
Olav Lian, University of the Fraser Valley
Bernard O. Bauer, University of British Columbia Okanagan
Barbara Cade-Menun, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Scott Smith, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Brian Leander, University of British Columbia
Ramona de Graaf, Sea Watch Society
Dan Penttila, Salish Sea Biological
Brian Menounos, University of Northern British Columbia
Brent Goehring, Tulane University
Dan Shugar, University of Washington Tacoma
Noriko Okamoto, Hakai Postdoctoral Fellow
Vera Tai, Hakai Postdoctoral Fellow
Michael Grilliot, University of Victoria
Libby Griffin, University of the Fraser Valley