2016-10-01 / Community

Sea oats: Nature’s storm insurance

By Katie Moses
Park Services Specialist

If you’ve visited Lovers Key or seen pictures of any Gulf or East coast beach then you’ve probably seen the magnificence of sea oats.

Sea oats (Uniola paniculata) are hardy, tough and incredibly efficient at not only creating sand dunes, but also protecting all the habitats, animals, plants, houses and people on their landward side. These incredible plants are a type of grass that thrives in hot sands where temperatures can reach from 120 to 127 degrees, are incredibly drought tolerant, survive the harsh salt spray from the sea, and withstand hurricane force winds.

Sea oats grow up to 6 feet tall and have prolific root systems that can reach up to 30 feet long. So why are sea oats so important? Bob Dylan said it best in song: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” Their roots are the key to the development of sand dunes.

Sea oats help create sand dunes and protect the plants, animals and property on their landward side. 
Contributed Sea oats help create sand dunes and protect the plants, animals and property on their landward side. Contributed Think of a large net or fence stretching across the beach and as the wind blows the sand across the beach that net stops the sand. Just like a snow drift in the northern states, a “sand drift” starts to form against the sea oats and their roots help to hold the sand in place. This sand drift is the beginning of a sand dune, an essential barrier against storm surge, particularly in the case of a hurricane. Sand dunes help to slow the storm surge or stop it all together, protecting everything behind them.

Without sea oats, we wouldn’t have sand dunes, and without sand dunes nothing would be able to survive hurricane storm surge along the coastline. Thankfully, sea oats can also survive inundation by saltwater. Sea turtles also use sand dunes as important nesting areas, as do a lot of other animals and plants that rely on the security they offer.

Next time you visit Lovers Key State Park (or any beach) stop and take a moment to admire these amazing plants and look at how they interact and protect the beach. Please also respect the fragile habitat of sand dunes. As amazing as sea oats are, they are incredibly vulnerable to being harmed by the footprint of humans. Please make sure to heed all signs protecting sand dunes and follow the designated paths to the beach. Harvesting or harming sea oats is prohibited by law; offenders could face up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

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