Coastal dunes form when wet sand is deposited along the coast and dries out and is blown along the beach. Dunes form where the beach is wide enough to allow for the accumulation of wind-blown sand, and where prevailing onshore winds tend to blow sand inland. The three key ingredients for coastal dune formation are a large sand supply, winds to move said sand supply, and a place for the sand supply to accumulate. Obstacles—for example, vegetation, pebbles and so on—tend to slow down the wind and lead to the deposition of sand grains. These small "incipient dunes or "shadow dunes" tend to grow in the vertical direction if the obstacle slowing the wind can also grow vertically (i.e., vegetation). Coastal dunes expand laterally as a result of lateral growth of coastal plants via seed or rhizome. Models of coastal dunes suggest that their final equilibrium height is related to the distance between the water line and where vegetation can grow. Coastal dunes can be classified by where they develop, or begin to take shape. Dunes are commonly grouped into either the Primary Dune Group or the Secondary Dune Group. Primary dunes gain most of their sand from the beach itself, while secondary dunes gain their sand from the primary dune. Along the Florida Panhandle, most dunes are considered to be foredunes or hummocks. Different locations around the globe have dune formations unique to their given coastal profile.
Coastal sand dunes can provide privacy and/or habitats to support local flora and fauna. Animals such as sand snakes, lizards, and rodents can live in coastal sand dunes, along with insects of all types. Often the vegetation of sand dunes is discussed without acknowledging the importance that coastal dunes have for animals. Further, some animals, such as foxes and feral pigs can use coastal dunes as hunting grounds to find food. Birds are also known to utilize coastal dunes as nesting grounds. All these species find the coastal environment of the sand dune vital to their species' survival.
Over the course of time coastal dunes may be impacted by tropical cyclones or other intense storm activity, dependent on their location. Recent work has suggested that coastal dunes tend to evolve toward a high or low morphology depending on the growth rate of dunes relative to storm frequency. During a storm event, dunes play a significant role in minimizing wave energy as it moves onshore. As a result, coastal dunes, especially those in the foredune area affected by a storm surge, will retreat or erode. To counteract the damage from tropical activity on coastal dunes, short term post-storm efforts can be made by individual agencies through fencing to help with sand accumulation.
How a much a dune erodes during any storm surge is related to its location on the coastal shoreline and the profile of the beach during a particular season. In those areas with harsher winter weather, during the summer a beach tends to take on more of a convex appearance due to gentler waves, while the same beach in the winter may take on more of a concave appearance. As a result, coastal dunes can get eroded much more quickly in the winter than in the summer. The converse is true in areas with harsher summer weather.
There are many threats to these coastal communities. Some coastal dunes, for example ones in San Francisco, have been completely altered by urbanization; reshaping the dune for human use. This puts native species at risk. Another danger, in California and places in the UK specifically, is the introduction of invasive species. Plant species, such as Carpobrotus edulis, were introduced from South Africa in an attempt to stabilize the dunes and provide horticultural benefits, but instead spread taking land away from native species. Ammophila arenaria, known as European beachgrass, has a similar story, though it has no horticulture benefits. It has great ground coverage and, as intended, stabilized the dunes but as an unintended side effect prevented native species from thriving in those dunes. One such example is the dune field at Point Reyes, California. There are now efforts to get rid of both of these invasive species.
As a dune forms, plant succession occurs. The conditions on an embryo dune are harsh, with salt spray from the sea carried on strong winds. The dune is well drained and often dry, and composed of calcium carbonate from seashells. Rotting seaweed, brought in by storm waves adds nutrients to allow pioneer species to colonize the dune. For example, in the United Kingdom these pioneer species are often marram grass, sea wort grass and other sea grasses. These plants are well adapted to the harsh conditions of the foredune, typically having deep roots which reach the water table, root nodules that produce nitrogen compounds, and protected stoma, reducing transpiration. Also, the deep roots bind the sand together, and the dune grows into a foredune as more sand is blown over the grasses. The grasses add nitrogen to the soil, meaning other, less hardy plants can then colonize the dunes. Typically these are heather, heaths and gorses. These too are adapted to the low soil water content and have small, prickly leaves which reduce transpiration. Heather adds humus to the soil and is usually replaced by coniferous trees, which can tolerate low soil pH, caused by the accumulation and decomposition of organic matter with nitrate leaching. Coniferous forests and heathland are common climax communities for sand dune systems.
Young dunes are called yellow dunes and dunes which have high humus content are called grey dunes. Leaching occurs on the dunes, washing humus into the slacks, and the slacks may be much more developed than the exposed tops of the dunes. It is usually in the slacks that more rare species are developed and there is a tendency for the dune slacks' soil to be waterlogged where only marsh plants can survive. In Europe these plants include: creeping willow, cotton grass, yellow iris, reeds, and rushes. As for vertebrates in European dunes, natterjack toads sometimes breed here.
Dune ecosystems are extremely difficult places for plants to survive. This is due to a number of pressures related to their proximity to the ocean and confinement to growth on sandy substrates. These include:
There are many adaptations plants have evolved to cope with these pressures:
A nabkha, or coppice dune, is a small dune anchored by vegetation. They usually indicate desertification or soil erosion, and serve as nesting and burrow sites for animals.
Sub-aqueous (underwater) dunes form on a bed of sand or gravel under the actions of water flow. They are ubiquitous in natural channels such as rivers and estuaries, and also form in engineered canals and pipelines. Dunes move downstream as the upstream slope is eroded and the sediment deposited on the downstream or lee slope in typical bedform construction. In the case of sub-aqueous barchan dunes, sediment is lost by their extremities, known as horns.
These dunes most often form as a continuous 'train' of dunes, showing remarkable similarity in wavelength and height. The shape of a dune gives information about its formation environment. For instance, rivers produce asymmetrical ripples, with the steeper slip face facing downstream. Ripple marks preserved in sedimentary strata in the geological record can be used to determine the direction of current flow, and thus an indication of the source of the sediments.
Dunes on the bed of a channel significantly increase flow resistance, their presence and growth playing a major part in river flooding.
A lithified (consolidated) sand dune is a type of sandstone that is formed when a marine or aeolian sand dune becomes compacted and hardened. Once in this form, water passing through the rock can carry and deposit minerals, which can alter the color of the rock. Cross-bedded layers of stacks of lithified dunes can produce the cross-hatching patterns, such as those seen in Zion National Park in the western United States.
A slang term, used in the southwest US, for consolidated and hardened sand dunes is "slickrock", a name that was introduced by pioneers of the Old West because their steel-rimmed wagon wheels could not gain traction on the rock.
Sand dunes can have a negative impact on humans when they encroach on human habitats. Sand dunes move via a few different means, all of them helped along by wind. One way that dunes can move is by saltation, where sand particles skip along the ground like a bouncing ball. When these skipping particles land, they may knock into other particles and cause them to move as well, in a process known as creep. With slightly stronger winds, particles collide in mid-air, causing sheet flows. In a major dust storm, dunes may move tens of metres through such sheet flows. Also as in the case of snow, sand avalanches, falling down the slipface of the dunes—that face away from the winds—also move the dunes forward.
Sand threatens buildings and crops in Africa, the Middle East, and China. Drenching sand dunes with oil stops their migration, but this approach uses a valuable resource and is quite destructive to the dunes' animal habitats. Sand fences might also slow their movement to a crawl, but geologists are still analyzing results for the optimum fence designs. Preventing sand dunes from overwhelming towns, villages, and agricultural areas has become a priority for the United Nations Environment Programme. Planting dunes with vegetation also helps to stabilise them.
Dune habitats provide niches for highly specialized plants and animals, including numerous rare species and some endangered species. Due to widespread human population expansion, dunes face destruction through land development and recreational usages, as well as alteration to prevent the encroachment of sand onto inhabited areas. Some countries, notably the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Sri Lanka have developed significant programs of dune protection through the use of sand dune stabilization. In the U.K., a Biodiversity Action Plan has been developed to assess dunes loss and to prevent future dunes destruction.
Dunes can likely be found in any environment where there is a substantial atmosphere, winds, and dust to be blown. Dunes are common on Mars and in the equatorial regions of Titan.
Titan's dunes include large expanses with modal lengths of about 20–30 km. The regions are not topographically confined, resembling sand seas. These dunes are interpreted to be longitudinal dunes whose crests are oriented parallel to the dominant wind direction, which generally indicates west-to-east wind flow. The sand is likely composed of hydrocarbon particles, possibly with some water ice mixed in.
Dunes are a popular theme in science fiction, featuring in depictions of dry Desert planets appearing as early as the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune. The environment of the desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) in the Dune franchise Dune in turn inspired the Star Wars franchise, which includes prominent theme of dunes on fictional planets such as Tatooine, Geonosis, and Jakku.