Climate-change impacts on sandy-beach biota: crossing a line in the sand

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Abstract

Sandy ocean beaches are iconic assets that provide irreplaceable ecosystem services to society. Despite their great socioeconomic importance, beaches as ecosystems are severely under-represented in the literature on climate-change ecology. Here, we redress this imbalance by examining whether beach biota have been observed to respond to recent climate change in ways that are consistent with expectations under climate change. We base our assessments on evidence coming from case studies on beach invertebrates in South America and on sea turtles globally. Surprisingly, we find that observational evidence for climate-change responses in beach biota is more convincing for invertebrates than for highly charismatic turtles. This asymmetry is paradoxical given the better theoretical understanding of the mechanisms by which turtles are likely to respond to changes in climate. Regardless of this disparity, knowledge of the unique attributes of beach systems can complement our detection of climate-change impacts on sandy-shore invertebrates to add rigor to studies of climate-change ecology for sandy beaches. To this end, we combine theory from beach ecology and climate-change ecology to put forward a suite of predictive hypotheses regarding climate impacts on beaches and to suggest ways that these can be tested. Addressing these hypotheses could significantly advance both beach and climate-change ecology, thereby progressing understanding of how future climate change will impact coastal ecosystems more generally.

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