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Sea, Sand and People. An Environmental History of Coastal Dunes

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - DUNES (Sea, Sand and People. An Environmental History of Coastal Dunes)

Reporting period: 2021-11-01 to 2023-04-30

Coastal dunes are unique ecosystems located between the sea and the land and can be found almost in all latitudes. They have several environmental functions, such as dissipating storm wave energy, filtering pollutants, sequestering carbon, purifying water and supporting a variety of socio-economic activities. Because of their instrumental value, the goods and services provided, dunes are now regarded as ecosystems that must be preserved. However, it was not like that in the past.
For centuries dunes were considered unproductive and dangerous. The sand blown by the wind was taken inland, invading fields, silting rivers and destroying villages. So, in the 18th century, a strategy was developed to fight the dunes: trapping them with fences, vegetation and trees, with the double purpose of preventing the destruction of arable land and increasing their economic value converting them into forest areas. Governments, from different countries, supported the task of immobilizing the shifting sands at a large-scale. The strategy, developed in Europe, was taken to other places in the world. These works caused profound changes in many coastal zones transforming active open sand dunes into stable green areas. They also left legacies: in some regions forestated dunes are kept as national parks, in others the introduction of exotic plants is putting at risk native species and ecosystems.
Due to the demographic and urbanistic pressures on coasts worldwide and the consequences of global climate change, dune restoration has become a priority. Dunes were discovered to be the best natural defence against sea flooding. In the past people were trying to immobilize the drifting sands, nowadays they are more interested in rehabilitating these environments, but the methods used are almost the same: fencing and planting vegetation. However, most coastal managers lack historical awareness and ignore what was done before. This way, they miss all the trial-and-error attempts, feedback and serendipity of former interventions.
Combining knowledge from both Humanities and Social Sciences and Physical and Life Sciences, DUNES project’s aims to (1) learn from past experience and adapt that knowledge and expertise to fit today’s challenges; and (2) bring people together around ambitious common goals concerning the coasts sustainability.
How? By recovering historical evidence and cross it with scientific data to create new knowledge and support dune local-based management practices. And also by producing compelling histories about these hybrid landscapes, highlighting them as both natural and cultural assets, as a result of a long-term interaction with humans. These outcomes will assist policy makers and stimulate environmental citizenship in designing and implementing new strategies concerning the future of European integrated coastal management.
Work performed and the results achieved so far:

1) Recruitment and training of an interdisciplinary team.
2) Construction of a GIS database (using Esri technology): the DUNES Open Archive.
3) Research, review, classification and insertion in the database of the collected information.
4) Analysis of particular dune-fields and writing of papers about these case-studies.
5) Publication of 2 papers and submission of others to journals.
6) Presentation of the project and its outputs in scientific meetings, conferences and workshops.
7) Promotion of science communication: creation of a website; dissemination in social media networks; short text production to newspapers, newsletters, blogs; development of storymaps about the case-studies.
Going beyond the state of the art meant solving one of the first challenges of the project: putting together an interdisciplinary team, with scholars from both the Humanities and the Natural Sciences, to work about coastal dunes. Then, training these researchers in the basic concepts and methodologies of History and Natural Sciences. Afterward, setting collaborative tasks and the workload.
The team has been collecting historical sources, from libraries and archives, on sand drift episodes, localization of dune fields, local traditions and uses, property issues, experts, institutions, afforested areas; and identifying scientific studies / data about dunes, sand forests and coastal management.
The information collected is being inserted in a database, specifically developed for the project. DUNES Open Archive is an important working tool for the team and after the end of the project it will be a dissemination instrument. This database is unique since it gathers multi-proxy information from different temporal scopes and origins about dunes in many parts of the globe.
Until the end of the project, DUNES expects to broaden present knowledge, providing answers about the threatening sands that become protected dunes, linking local histories to global networks. This will be achieved by crossing data and establishing connections between scientific quantitative data and human activities/contexts/impacts. General syntheses are being done about the case-studies, comparing differences and similarities, establishing connections, presenting explanations, in order to propose comprehensive narratives about human and dunes interactions in a global perspective. These syntheses will be disseminated through a book and papers, published in international open-access peer-reviewed journals. Dissemination also includes public lectures for different audiences and pedagogical materials for schools, a website to divulgate the team activities and communication in social media networks.
Hybrid dunes in Barril Beach, Portugal
Forest in the dunes and coastal erosion in Maceda Beach, Portugal
Human uses of the dunes in Cape Cod, USA
Dune intervention in Barril Beach, Portugal