Coastal Dunes as Archives of Climate Change


OCCI Funded Project: 2005

Proposed Research

What are the primary questions you are trying to address with this research?
Coastal sand dunes are common landforms along continental margins and their origin, migration, and stabilization have been intimately linked to sediment availability, sea-level history, climatic shifts, and most recently, human-induced changes. One of the hypotheses being addressed in the proposed project is the potential of coastal dune sequences on the opposite sides of a large ocean basin to record large-scale climatic fluctuations as synchronous periods of dune activity and stabilization. The proposed study focuses on the responses of coastal dunes and interdunal wetlands at two sites (Aquinnah dunefield, Martha’s Vineyard and Curonian Spit, Lithuania; Figure 1) to climate change around the North Atlantic over the past 2,000-3,000 years.

What is the significance of this research for others working in this field of inquiry and for the broader scientific community?
Despite the importance of coastal dunes as natural sand reservoirs along many barrier systems and buffers against storm attack, very little is known about the dynamic responses of aeolian (wind-produced) landforms and associated ecosystems to climatic shifts and perturbations in the regional hydrologic balance. As a geological continuation of the beach, linking the behavior of dune systems to specific environmental forcing factors (wind direction and intensity, precipitation, vegetation cover, sediment supply, water-level fluctuations) in different parts of the world will be of primary significance for predicting large-scale coastal responses to future changes.

What is the significance of this research for society?
Faced with predicted acceleration in the global sea-level rise and ever-increasing population pressures, it is important for coastal communities to anticipate the near-future trends in shoreline change and properly manage coastal resources. In some parts of the world, coastal residents find themselves caught between rising sea level and massive, rapidly encroaching dunes mobilized by either natural or human-induced processes. The integral role of dunes in the geological and ecological adjustment along the world’s coasts underscores the need to improve our knowledge of their past behavior.

When and where will this investigation be conducted?
The project will begin in the summer of 2005 with surveys on Martha’s Vineyard and several field sites on Cape Cod. Fieldwork in Lithuania will follow in the fall.

What are the key tools or instruments needed to conduct this research?
In the field, a combination of ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveying and collection of sediment cores will be used to reconstruct the subsurface geology of coastal dune sites (Figure 1A). The timeframe of dune migration and stabilization will be documented using radiocarbon dating of organic deposits, dendrochronology, and optical dating of dune sands.

Is this research part of a larger project or program?
The proposed project is a new line of inquiry at WHOI and will be used to refine the strategy for improving success of the future research initiatives in this field.


Ilya Buynevich joined WHOI’s Coastal Systems Group after finishing his post-doctoral work at the Institution. Growing up in southern Ukraine along the shores of Black Sea, he always enjoyed family trips to the beach and walks along ancient seacliffs. His interest in the processes that shape the coast led him to pursue one of the few marine geology programs in the country and, upon coming to the United States, he continued his education and graduate work in coastal geology at Boston University. His most recent research projects focused on the use of sedimentological and geophysical techniques for reconstructing the record of beach erosion and the natural history of coastal landforms. He enjoys outdoors, especially a day at the beach, with his wife Vicki (also a Ukraine native) and their twin boys.