Prince Edward Island National Park protects a portion of the Maritime Plain Natural Region, which is characterized by sand dunes, barrier islands and beaches, sandspits, and associated wetlands. The diverse habitats in the Park provide a home for a variety of plants and animals. The woods and shores of the Park are filled with over 300 species of birds and a large variety of plants.

Climate change and coastal erosion, PEI National Park


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[Catherine McKenna and Brad Romaniuk on the beach next to sand dunes in PEI National Park]

[Catherine McKenna] So I’m here with Brad Romaniuk, he’s a resource conservation manager at PEI National Park. So we’re in a really amazing spot, tell me what we’re looking at.

[Brad Romaniuk] So Catherine we’re looking at our coastal ecosystem of the national park. That dune structure that basically lines the ocean for the duration of park and it’s an important ecosystem in the fact that it’s very narrow and it’s very dynamic, constantly changing.

The waves and wind actually change this environment constantly.

[Catherine McKenna] So what are we doing to protect and maintain the dunes?

[Brad Romaniuk] So from the ecological integrity perspective, we monitor all of the ecosystems in our national parks across Canada, and this ecosystem itself we monitor erosion rates. The national park is based on a sandstone formation and so it constantly changes.

[Catherine McKenna] So what about climate change? Are you worried about the impacts of climate change? More storms, coastal erosion… [Brad Romaniuk] Yes, I think climate change for us is something we really want to work with our partners with and understand better. As it relates to this specific environment, there’s probably three processes that take place that we would like to learn more about and try to understand. One of them would be the frequency of storms and the severity. Some of these sand dunes are quite fragile if they’re compromised, so they can move and change rapidly. Secondly is the formation of an ice foot, there’s an ice foot that forms on this line every fall. As climate change changes, that ice foot is forming later and that’s a protective barrier to these dunes in the winter time from ice that comes off the ocean and it’s protected from scouring and changing this landscape in a very rapid fashion. The third one is actually just a long sort of understanding of how people use the environment and the interest of getting on the dunes and learning about them and how that changes people’s understanding.

[Catherine McKenna] Well it’s really amazing because I know Canadians love our national parks and my big thing is how do we get Canadians to learn more about our national parks and how each park is unique and represents a different ecosystem, how they can connect with the parks and then of course how they can protect them. So it’s great, thank you for all the work you’re doing.

[Brad Romaniuk] Thank you!

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© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by Parks Canada, 2017.

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The roots and rhizomes of marram grass form a living net, which helps hold the dune in place. Research on the effect of trampling on vegetation is a major priority for the Park.

Wild rose is one of the first shrubs to take root in more sheltered areas in the dunes. The shiny coating on its leaves protects it from the harsh environment.

Red foxes make their dens in the sand dunes. While it may be tempting to try to get close, please don't feed or approach them as it could cause them harm in the future if they get used to humans.

Sand Dunes and Beaches

The sandbars, barrier beaches, and dunes that you see throughout the Park today were formed by the accumulation of sand from eroding sandstone. Sand dunes are created by the wind and waves that carry dry sand up onto the beach where it collects behind rocks or clumps of seaweed. The gradual build-up of sand that forms a dune would be blown away if it were not for the sand-loving marram grass, whose roots and rhizomes form a living net, which helps to slow the movement of sand. Once stabilized, a variety of other plants and many different animals can make the dunes their home.

Sand dunes are an important natural habitat and act as a natural protective barrier against the effects of storms and waves. Research on dunes and all its associated features – vegetation, wildlife, and wetlands - helps us to understand and protect them better.

Sand Dune Protection

Even the more stable dunes are fragile and easily damaged. Walking on dunes eliminates the protective plant cover. Studies have shown that it can take as few as 10 footsteps through the same area to destroy a marram grass colony. Once the grass is gone, the wind blows away the exposed sand and carves small depressions into giant holes called blowouts. Blowouts turn stable dunes into constantly shifting hills, unable to support vegetation or wildlife.

Stable dunes provide shelter and food to wildlife and protect us from heavy storms
Stable dunes provide shelter and food to wildlife and protect us from heavy storms.
We have counted about 150 unauthorized paths along the coastline of the park. Such scars destroy the fragile dune habitat and can take years to heal.
We have counted about 150 unauthorized paths along the coastline of the park. Such scars destroy the fragile dune habitat and can take years to heal.
© Parks Canada / Barrett et MacKay

We need the cooperation of all visitors to preserve the dunes

Please use the boardwalks and carpeted foot paths at designated beach access points and stay off the dunes to prevent further damage. By avoiding unauthorized paths, the marram grass will be able to regenerate, thus allowing damaged dunes to rehabilitate. Together, we can ensure that the fragile beauty of the dunelands will endure for future generations.