The Dunes of Dauphin Island

The Dunes of Dauphin Island

To the uninformed, they’re just piles of sand, but to the 1,000 residents of Dauphin Island, the dunes are the first line of protection from the damaging winds and waters of coastal storms. With the ever-increasing threat of hurricanes and rising seas, the health of this dune system is more crucial than ever and in need of stronger regulations to preserve it.

Dune History

For generations, the dunes of Dauphin Island were revered by the small, tight-knit community that lived there for the protection they provided.

Jeff Collier–Mayor, Town of Dauphin Island and Dauphin Island Native
"The dune system on the island is the lifeblood– essentially of the stability of Dauphin Islandany. I think the Island natives knew that first hand. Growing up around here, they protected it to the best of their ability. They wouldn’t let children get on the dunes in most cases and really recognized the critical importance of the dunes for the stability and protection of their properties."

When a bridge was built and development surged in the 1950s, many developers did not understand the dynamics of dunes. They subdivided lots up to the landward toe of existing dunes, leaving no buffer between private properties and the dune system.

Darrel Mallon – Dauphin Island Native
“When I was a kid, the dunes were tall. I don’t know if they looked real tall because I was a kid. But after the bridge come, they started cutting them down."

How dunes are formed and their role

Sand dunes are natural features of the shoreline and critical parts of the beach system, which extends from the landward side of the dunes out hundreds of feet into the Gulf.

Sam Bentley–Director, LSU Coastal Studies Institute; Professor in Sedimentary Geology, LSU
"Sand dunes are big piles of sand that occur just landward of the beach–of the swash zone as we call it. And they are created by the pushing of sand in a landward direction by both wind and waves. So for example, when storm waves over wash an island they can deliver sediment from offshore regions onto the island although they may flatten dunes a little bit by the erosive force; it can also be delivering more sediment from offshore.

"Dunes are really part of the beach. They're dynamic like the beach is, but over longer time scales and being pushed by slightly different forces."

Dunes don’t develop overnight. During long periods of calm weather, usually in summer months, gentle waves and tides push sand onto the beach where it accumulates and dries. Onshore winds blow it landward until it’s captured by sea oats, a dune fence, or an existing dune, allowing dunes to build over time.

  • Sand Dunes protect the shoreline and structures of the Island’s Gulf-fronting beaches from coastal erosion.
  • They serve as areas of groundwater recharge, retaining freshwater as a buffer to saltwater intrusion.
  • Dunes provide shelter to the maritime forests and neighborhoods behind them.
  • They protect important habitat for birds and wildlife, and
  • Most importantly, provide a reservoir of sand that erodes naturally to replenish adjacent beaches.

The western part of the Island provides an instructive illustration of how fragile the island would be without a healthy dune system.

In 2017, The USGS mapped the Dauphin Island dunes as part of the Alabama Barrier Island Restoration Assessment. The dune system, including both frontal dunes and back dunes, were characterized as:

  • Wooded,
  • Vegetated, or
  • Bare.

These dunes are not static, remaining in one place over time. Instead, they migrate due to the forces of waves, erosion, and wind.

When the island was subdivided in the 1950s, lots were plotted directly up to the dune line. Over time, as the dunes have moved, they sometimes encroached on the subdivided lots, leaving the town with a dilemma: How can we conserve the dunes to maintain their function, protecting community assets, while also respecting rights of landowners whose properties have transitioned into the dunes?

Jeff Collier–Mayor, Town of Dauphin Island and Dauphin Island Native
"What we’re trying to do now as a town–we’re developing a Dune Overlay Protection Program. Getting full public input and buy-in to try to demonstrate the continued importance of the dune system and take actions so that as people utilize their properties, we do so in the most dune-friendly way, and that’s the balance we’re trying to strike. I think we’re making good progress, and we’ll continue to do so."

Because Islanders recognize the important role dunes play in maintaining the resilience of this barrier island, community members have come together to begin the process of creating a Sand Dune Protection and Management Plan, incorporating it into the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. This plan establishes “dune-friendly” practices to be used in all future development in these highly-sensitive areas. The Plan provides a first step towards strengthening dune protection by adding new regulations, beyond current zoning and building codes, to make sure new development does not harm existing dunes on private properties.

Along with regulations restricting intentional dune modification, the Plan includes recommendations related to good stewardship of the dunes that anyone can, and should, follow.

Stay off the dunes. By walking or playing on sand dunes, you can unwittingly uproot sea oats or other vegetation holding them in place. Access the beach only on elevated boardwalks or established trails.

Avoid disturbing dunes, especially with excavators or dozers. Digging up even a part of a single dune can irrevocably disrupt and degrade the entire dune system.

Plant native dune vegetation along your shoreline property, like sea oats, bitter beachgrass, or morning glories, and install sand fencing to help stabilize dunes and increase wildlife habitat.

Keep dogs out of the dunes so they don’t dig, disrupt bird nests, or chase wildlife.

Become an advocate for the dunes, and get involved in public meetings related to protecting them through zoning, regulation, and purchase or creation of conservation easements or sanctuaries to protect especially vulnerable areas.

As all of us do our part, we can protect the Dunes of Dauphin Island for generations to come.

A Mobile Bay National Estuary Program production in association with Cobia Digital

Archive Photos

The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library - University of South Alabama

  • History Museum of Mobile Collection: MOM-5598-4, MOM-8050-2
  • Chamber of Commerce Collection: COC-28

The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections

  • Roland Harper Photo Collection: 85911, 85914, 85912


  • Up Early by Marie (Jacob Schrodt, Chelsea McGough, Grant Pittman) licensed through SoundStripe
  • Wonder by Benjamin Caleb Johnson a – A SOUNDSTRIPE PRODUCTION


Funding for this project provided by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, State Lands Division, Coastal Section, in part, by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office for Coastal Management, Award # 15NOS4190166