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A beach is a landform alongside a body of water which consists of loose particles. The particles composing a beach are typically made from rock, such as sand, gravel, shingle, pebbles, etc., or biological sources, such as mollusc shells or coralline algae. Sediments settle in different densities and structures, depending on the local wave action and weather, creating different textures, colors and gradients or layers of material.
Though some beaches form on freshwater locations, most beaches are in coastal areas where wave or current action deposits and reworks sediments. Erosion and changing of beach geologies happens through natural processes, like wave action and extreme weather events. Where wind conditions are correct, beaches can be backed by coastal dunes which offer protection and regeneration for the beach. However, these natural forces have become more extreme due to climate change, permanently altering beaches at very rapid rates. Some estimates describe as much as 50 percent of the earth's sandy beaches disappearing by 2100 due to climate-change driven sea level rise.
Sandy beaches occupy about one third of global coastlines. These beaches are popular for recreation, playing important economic and cultural roles—often driving local tourism industries. To support these uses, some beaches have man-made infrastructure, such as lifeguard posts, changing rooms, showers, shacks and bars. They may also have hospitality venues (such as resorts, camps, hotels, and restaurants) nearby or housing, both for permanent and seasonal residents.
Human forces have significantly changed beaches globally: direct impacts include bad construction practices on dunes and coastlines, while indirect human impacts include water pollution, plastic pollution and coastal erosion from sea level rise and climate change. Some coastal management practices are designed to preserve or restore natural beach processes, while some beaches are actively restored through practices like beach nourishment.
Marine debris on a beach in Hawaii.
Wild beaches, also known as undeveloped or undiscovered beaches, are not developed for tourism or recreation. Preserved beaches are important biomes with important roles in aquatic or marine biodiversity, such as for breeding grounds for sea turtles or nesting areas for seabirds or penguins. Preserved beaches and their associated dune are important for protection from extreme weather for inland ecosystems and human infrastructure.
Beaches are the result of wave action by which waves or currents move sand or other loose sediments of which the beach is made as these particles are held in suspension. Alternatively, sand may be moved by saltation (a bouncing movement of large particles). Beach materials come from erosion of rocks offshore, as well as from headland erosion and slumping producing deposits of scree. A coral reef offshore is a significant source of sand particles. Some species of fish that feed on algae attached to coral outcrops and rocks can create substantial quantities of sand particles over their lifetime as they nibble during feeding, digesting the organic matter, and discarding the rock and coral particles which pass through their digestive tracts.
The composition of the beach depends upon the nature and quantity of sediments upstream of the beach, and the speed of flow and turbidity of water and wind. Sediments are moved by moving water and wind according to their particle size and state of compaction. Particles tend to settle and compact in still water. Once compacted, they are more resistant to erosion. Established vegetation (especially species with complex network root systems) will resist erosion by slowing the fluid flow at the surface layer. When affected by moving water or wind, particles that are eroded and held in suspension will increase the erosive power of the fluid that holds them by increasing the average density, viscosity, and volume of the moving fluid.
Coastlines facing very energetic wind and wave systems will tend to hold only large rocks as smaller particles will be held in suspension in the turbid water column and carried to calmer areas by longshore currents and tides. Coastlines that are protected from waves and winds will tend to allow finer sediments such as clay and mud to precipitate creating mud flats and mangrove forests. The shape of a beach depends on whether the waves are constructive or destructive, and whether the material is sand or shingle. Waves are constructive if the period between their wave crests is long enough for the breaking water to recede and the sediment to settle before the succeeding wave arrives and breaks.
Fine sediment transported from lower down the beach profile will compact if the receding water percolates or soaks into the beach. Compacted sediment is more resistant to movement by turbulent water from succeeding waves. Conversely, waves are destructive if the period between the wave crests is short. Sediment that remains in suspension when the following wave crest arrives will not be able to settle and compact and will be more susceptible to erosion by longshore currents and receding tides. The nature of sediments found on a beach tends to indicate the energy of the waves and wind in the locality.
Constructive waves move material up the beach while destructive waves move the material down the beach. During seasons when destructive waves are prevalent, the shallows will carry an increased load of sediment and organic matter in suspension. On sandy beaches, the turbulent backwash of destructive waves removes material forming a gently sloping beach. On pebble and shingle beaches the swash is dissipated more quickly because the large particle size allows greater percolation, thereby reducing the power of the backwash, and the beach remains steep. Compacted fine sediments will form a smooth beach surface that resists wind and water erosion.
During hot calm seasons, a crust may form on the surface of ocean beaches as the heat of the sun evaporates the water leaving the salt which crystallises around the sand particles. This crust forms an additional protective layer that resists wind erosion unless disturbed by animals or dissolved by the advancing tide. Cusps and horns form where incoming waves divide, depositing sand as horns and scouring out sand to form cusps. This forms the uneven face on some sand shorelines. White sand beaches look white because the quartz or eroded limestone in the sand reflects or scatters sunlight without absorbing other colors.
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