Dune development

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Fig. 1. World map of coastal zones where well-developed coastal dune belts occur. Adapted from Martinez and Psuty (2008)[1].

Dunes are found worldwide along sandy coasts, see Fig. 1. They protect settlements in the coastal zone against wave damage and flooding. However, they are not equally well developed everywhere. Dissipative coasts that are subject to energetic waves provide the best conditions for the development of a strong dune belt. This article provides an introduction to the processes involved in dune formation and the conditions that promote dune formation. Several related topics are covered in other articles: Sand Dunes in Europe gives a description of different dune zones; Dynamics, threats and management of dunes provides an introduction to dune management; vegetation that promotes dune formation is described in Shore protection vegetation; erosion of the dune under storm conditions is dealt with in Dune erosion.

Processes that influence dune formation

Dune formation is influenced by many factors, in particular:

  • sediment supply
  • wave climate
  • wind regime
  • grainsize
  • aeolian sand transport
  • storms
  • beach morphology
  • vegetation
  • overwash

These various factors will be discussed shortly in the following.

Sediment supply

Coastal dune development generally occurs on prograding or stable coasts and seldom on coasts that are structurally retreating[2]. Observations show that accretion rates in foredunes correspond reasonably well to volumes supplied to the beach by onshore bar migration over the long term[3]. Sructural shoreline retreat is generally linked to divergence of longshore sand transport (see Natural causes of coastal erosion), whereas convergence of longshore sand transport is considered a major mechanism for beach stabilization or accretion[4]. An updrift-located sandy river delta can constitute an important sediment source[5]. Another source of sediment supply is provided by disequilibrium shoreface morphology caused by the delay of shoreface adaptation to evolving hydrometeorological conditions including sea level change[6]. Progradation of dissipative coasts is strongly promoted by welding of nearshore sandbars to the beach[7].

Wave climate

Waves are the major agent for sediment exchange between beach and shoreface. Onshore or offshore transport can both occur, depending on the current wave climate, water level and beach state. Whether onshore or offshore transport dominates on a long time scale varies widely along most coasts. However, stable or accreting wide beaches are often found at fine-sandy high-energy coasts, which are typically dissipative coasts. Although such coasts may suffer strong erosion during storm events, fast recovery is often observed (see Dune erosion). In cases where nearshore sandbars move onshore, these bars may weld to the beach, producing strong beach progradation[8] (see Nearshore sandbars), which is a major factor in post-storm beach and dune recovery. Maximum wave run-up is dominated by infragravity swash, which transports sand ashore under average and medium energetic conditions[9] (see Infragravity waves). However, for optimum dune accretion wave run-up should not greatly reduce the width of the dry beach.

Wind regime

Coastal dunes grow by inland-directed aeolian sand transport. The growth rate depends on the strength of the onshore component of the wind vector. The highest sediment flux to the dune occurs for high-speed winds with a moderate shore-oblique incidence angle[10]. The longshore wind component generally increases the fetch, i.e. the length of the wind path over the beach for loading the aeolian transport with saltating sand grains. Saltation is the bouncing of sand grains along the surface where the winds are capable to mobilize and transport particles over short distances. The optimum fetch does not only depend on wind strength, but also on sand grainsize, sand moisture and other features such as crusts and shells[11].


Fine sand is more easily transported by the wind than coarse sand and therefore contributes more to dune accretion. There is a strong relationship between grain size and beach morphology. Fine sand (average grain size less than about 0.3 mm) is typical of dissipative beaches, while coarser sand and gravel is characteristic of reflective beaches (see Coastal and marine sediments). An inverse correlation is generally observed between dune volume and the grain size of non-cohesive beach sediment.

Aeolian sand transport

Fig. 2. Groundwater upwelling on the upper beach, near the foot of an eroding dune, Aquitaine coast, France.

The magnitude of aeolian sand transport is approximately proportional to the third power of the wind speed[12]. Supply limitation is a major impediment to aeolian sand transport on beaches[13]. Supply limitation is caused by cohesion and adhesion effects that inhibit the mobilization of sand grains by wind stress. Moisture is a major factor; even low levels of moisture can effectively reduce the transport rate of dry sand[14]. However, the influence of moisture becomes minor when wind velocities exceed 10 m/s. The presence of salt crusts, algae, clay, organic matter and calcareous materials also inhibits the uptake of sand from the beach; the presence of coarse materials (i.e. gravel, shells) can lead to an armour layer on top of the finer beach sand. An empirical formula for aeolian sand transport that takes these various factors into account has been developed by Van Rijn (2022)[12]. Only a dry beach allows the aeolian sediment transport to reach its maximum value. Strong dune accretion therefore requires a dry beach of sufficient width. Moisture can be due to precipitation, to inundation by waves, or to water-table effects[15]. Tidal inundation and wave run-up limit the width of the dry beach. In cases of steep coastal topography, beach sand can be wetted by a high water table and groundwater exfiltration (Fig. 2), see Submarine groundwater discharge.


Storm surge levels that reach to the dune foot can cause severe dune erosion, see Dune erosion. During storm surges with high waves and elevated water levels, wave bores and swash collide with the dune, and the dune responds by slumping or scarping. The removed sand is deposited on the lower beach or moved to the upper shoreface. The magnitude of dune erosion during a storm event increases with the length of exposure of the dune face to incoming waves. The height of the dune foot, i.e. the width and slope of the backshore, are important beach parameters for dune vulnerability to erosion. Moderate onshore winds (no strong raise of water levels and wave run-up) can accomplish fast after-storm beach recovery (weeks to months), by returning the eroded sediment from the lower beach and upper shoreface[16][17][18]. However, the much longer timescale of dune recovery (years to decades) entails high sensitivity of dunes to sequences of storms[19][20]. A high-intensity storm can set back dune development for many years. Overall, net dune growth depends on the balance between summer growth and winter erosion[20].

Storms are also a determining factor for dune development. Embryo dunes cannot develop into a mature dune ridge if they are too close to the shoreline. This is the case when the erosion frequency is too high to allow dune restoration by aeolian sand transport. Moreover, if the width of the dry beach in front of the dune is small, aeolian transport will be small too. This means that dune development will occur only from a minimum distance from the shoreline, which depends on storm frequency and other site characteristics.

Beach morphology

A wide subaerial beach is a primary condition for dune formation. Gently sloping flat beaches are a characteristic of dissipative coasts. Dissipative beaches have approximately 60% higher long-term net aeolian sediment transport compared to reflective beaches[21]. On reflective beaches, the presence of steep berms and beach faces disturb the wind flow causing a reduction of the wind velocity. Moreover, the beach width (distance from the high water line to the dune foot) is smaller for a steep beach than for a gently sloping beach; the wind fetch for sand uptake is thus also smaller. So there is less aeolian sediment transport from the beach to dunes, eventually resulting in small foredunes. In contrast, dissipative beaches display a low gradient, flat to slightly concave sub-aerial beach morphology, no berms, and a wider backshore, providing less reduction in wind velocity across the beach and backshore and greater wind fetch that lead to a greater aeolian sand transport potential and higher/wider foredunes [22]. Dissipative beaches are frequently characterized by large-scale transgressive dune sheets; intermediate beaches by a trend from large-scale parabolic dune systems (high-wave energy) to small-scale blowouts (low-wave energy); and reflective beaches by minimal dune development[21].


Shore vegetation contributes to shore protection in two complementary ways[23][24]:

  1. by decreasing wave runup, due to the frictional effect of stems and foliage;
  2. by decreasing sand loss by wave backwash, due to the effect of plant roots on sand aggregation and fixation.

These functions increase the retention of sand of the upper beach and backshore during storms and high water levels. This sand also nourishes further aeolian inshore transport and increases the sand volume of the dunes behind. The suitability of different beach vegetation species for different coastal environments and their dune building capacity is discussed in Shore protection vegetation. The type of dune that develops depends on the type of vegetation. Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) has very strong sand trapping and sand binding capacities and therefore stimulates the development of high voluminous foredunes with a steep slope. The species Panicum amarum (Bitter Panicum) and Uniola paniculata (Sea Oats) are good sand binders but have slow lateral spread; foredunes dunes vegetated with these species therefore tend to be steep and narrow[25]. Dune vegetation with the species Leymus arenarius and Leymus mollis (Lyme grass) generally has a lower density; these species therefore favour the development of wide low foredunes[26].

Fig. 3. Development of an embryo dune induced by sand trapping marram grass (Ammophila arenaria).

Vegetation is a major trigger for incipient dune formation. The development of a bare beach to a foredune depends on three stages: dune formation, dune growth and dune survival[27]. Sand grains are lifted from the beach by strong winds and carried until the wind velocity decreases below the transport threshold due to topographic obstacles landward of the driftline such as tidal litter, driftwood, or clumps of vegetation[28]. Dune development begins with the establishment of perennial vegetation on the beach[29]. The vegetation traps and stabilizes the sand, preventing it from being blown away, which results in a small embryo dune (also known as an incipient foredune or nebkha dune, Fig. 3), see Shore protection vegetation. Embryo dunes are often ephemeral, depending on the frequency of swash inundation, storm wave erosion, and overwash[27]. They become established coastal foredunes if sand capture by the vegetation can go on, which requires a wide beach and sufficient distance from the shoreline[20]. Volume increase of the embryo dunes affects the wind flow pattern and creates preferential zones of sand erosion and deposition. Over time, a dune ridge parallel to the shore may form by coalescence of embryo dunes, turning the previous foredune into a secondary foredune landward of the new primary foredune[28]. These secondary foredunes, being isolated from deposition and accretion from nearshore processes, are characterized by the presence of successive and mature plant communities. Secondary dunes are generally stabilized and composed of multiple parallel and vegetated dune ridges sequenced by dune slacks[28], illustrated in Fig. 4.

Fig. 4. Following the construction of the Rhine discharge sluices ('Haringvliet sluices') in 1970, a strong progradation occurred at the adjacent coast of Goeree. The image from 2005 shows new dune ridges that have since formed on the accreted strand plain. Photo credit Rens Jacobs, Beeldbank Rijkswaterstaat.


Storm impacts that result in dune overwash and inundation are highly detrimental to the dune system. Overwash sediments are not returned to the active coastal zone and thus not available for dune recovery. Overwash deposits can be overgrown with cord grass (Spartina patens) that consolidates the overwash deposit but is not effective for dune rebuilding[30].

Dune-beach dynamics

Pellon et al. (2020)[31] proposed a conceptual model of dune-beach dynamics based on hydrogeomorphological observations of several beaches along the northern Spanish coast. They present evidence that dune development for stable beaches (no strong structural erosion or accretion) results from a dynamic feedback involving storm wave runup and beach width. When the beach width is smaller than the long-term equilibrium beach width, the dune will recede as a result of erosion by storm wave runup with a recurrence time smaller than the dune recovery period. However, when the dune recedes, the width of the dry beach increases. Hence, the aeolian transport increases, thus decreasing the dune recovery time, while the recurrence time of storm wave erosion of the dune increases. The dune foot position will thus advance and eventually oscillate around an equilibrium position due to this negative feedback mechanism. This conceptual model also explains why energetic beaches often have a greater dune volume than beaches in a low-wave environment. On energetic beaches, the distance between shoreline and dune foot is large, implying a wide dry beach and thus strong aeolian sand transport. Dunes on energetic beaches therefore grow faster during periods between storm surges than dunes on low-energy beaches.

Related articles

Sand Dunes in Europe
Dynamics, threats and management of dunes
Dune erosion
Shore protection vegetation
Shoreface profile
Nearshore sandbars
Infragravity waves


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The main author of this article is Job Dronkers
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Job Dronkers (2023): Dune development. Available from http://www.coastalwiki.org/wiki/Dune_development [accessed on 21-05-2024]