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Barrier island bistability induced by biophysical interactions



Barrier islands represent about 10% of the world’s coastline1, sustain rich ecosystems, host valuable infrastructure and protect mainland coasts from storms. Future climate-change-induced increases in the intensity and frequency of major hurricanes2 and accelerations in sea-level rise3,4 will have a significant impact on barrier islands5,6—leading to increased coastal hazards and flooding—yet our understanding of island response to external drivers remains limited1,7,8. Here, we find that island response is intrinsically bistable and controlled by previously unrecognized dynamics: the competing, and quantifiable, effects of storm erosion, sea-level rise, and the aeolian and biological processes that enable and drive dune recovery. When the biophysical processes driving dune recovery dominate, islands tend to be high in elevation and vulnerability to storms is minimized. Alternatively, when the effects of storm erosion dominate, islands may become trapped in a perpetual state of low elevation and maximum vulnerability to storms, even under mild storm conditions. When sea-level rise dominates, islands become unstable and face possible disintegration. This quantification of barrier island dynamics is supported by data from the Virginia Barrier Islands, USA and provides a broader context for considering island response to climate change and the likelihood of potentially abrupt transitions in island state.

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Figure 1: Empirical evidence for barrier island bistability.
Figure 2: Post-storm barrier island recovery.
Figure 3: Bistability of island elevation.
Figure 4: Dynamical states and transitions.


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Financial support was provided by the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research Program (National Science Foundation DEB-123773), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science through the Coastal Center of the National Institute for Climatic Change Research at Tulane University, the Geomorphology and Land use Dynamics Program of the National Science Foundation (EAR-1324973), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The authors are grateful to A. B. Murray (Duke University), P. Haff (Duke University) and J. Bruno (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) for helpful feedback on this manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Orencio Durán Vinent.

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Durán Vinent, O., Moore, L. Barrier island bistability induced by biophysical interactions. Nature Clim Change 5, 158–162 (2015).

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