Cape Cod National Seashore Ecosystem


At every stage of their development people were closely connected with the external environment. However, since the occurrence of the industrial society, human’s dangerous intrusion into the natural environment was sharply intensified. The scale of such intrusion was extended, and the intrusion itself became diversified, posing a threat of turning into a global catastrophe. The recent rise of interest in the environment and accordingly to the developments in the environmental sciences led to that the society began to recognize the importance of preserving nature and the natural ecosystem. The main focus of environmental science is mainly addressing the interaction of the people and nature in the context of such factors as population growth, “urbanization, and sustainability within a global perspective” (Botkin and Keller 3). One of the initiatives resulting from the raised concern about environmental sustainability is its protection, which can be seen through the creation of certain conservation areas, an example of which can be seen in the Cape Cod National Seashore. The Cape Cod National Seashore is 44,600 acres of protected land by the National Park Service, which “encompass a rich mosaic of marine, estuarine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems” (NPS “Cape Cod: Nature & Science”).

In regard to the aforementioned, this paper provides an environmental summary of the Cape Cod National Seashore, in terms of physical characteristics, environmental factors, and protection and preservation, which is based on external research and personal exploratory investigation of the aforementioned area.


Being an important element of national heritage, the Cape Cod peninsula (an island since 1914) is a reflection of approximately 9,000 years of human activity and more than 18,000 years in geologic time (NPS “Cape Cod: Nature & Science”). Cape Cod forms an archipelago extending to New York, and which is called the Outer Lands. The extended shape can be explained by the geological origin of the islands and Cape Cod, where the glacial moraines and the ice shield lobes were responsible for the current location and shape. The retreat of this ice away from Cape Cod 18,000 years ago marked the beginning of its geological history (USGS). It should be noted that the process of change is still continuing, either due to natural processes, such as sand transport and erosion, or man-induced processes, such as settlements and industrialized developments.

Physical Characteristics

The uniqueness of Cape Cod, in addition to the origin of its formation, can be traced to the variety of ecosystems contained within the environment. An example of such variables can be illustrated in the following photo.

Variety of ecosystem
Variety of ecosystem 

The diversity of plants in Cape Cod makes its flora unique in terms of its association with different landscapes. In general, Cape Cod’s flora is comprised of more than 800 species, including terrestrial, wetland and marine plants, varying through different landscapes, including heathlands, grasslands, dunes, woodlands, seagrass beds and others (NPS “Cape Cod: Nature & Science”). The examples of plants include algae, such as the filamentous green algae, which grows in the sand enforces its stabilization (an aspect similar to which was witnessed through the observation of dunes with American beach grass), and salt marsh plants, which variation is linked to the blockage of the seawater and the differences in marsh elevation (NPS “Algal Crusts of the Dunes; Portnoy). Additionally, the fauna in Cape Cod includes 33 plants, which are listed as Endangered, Threatened, or of Special Concern by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Program (NPS “Plant Ecology “).

In terms of fauna diversity in Cape Cod, it should be mentioned that the significance of the area to the environment can be provided by the fact that almost 5% of the entire Atlantic coats population inhabits Cape Cod seashore. The scale of the diversity can be evident, where over 450 species are dependable on the area, either year-round or only during the nesting season (NPS “Cape Cod: Animals”). The list of species is extended into many categories, among which many species play an important role in the preservation of the park’s ecosystem, either through the consumption of prey or serving as prey. Additionally, some species can serve as indicators of the ecosystem’s wellbeing, an example of which is the horseshoe crab (Limulus Polyphemus), known for the physiologically active compounds it makes and which was one of the species observed on beach barrier islands (Botkin and Keller). A blood test of the horseshoe crab can indicate if it has been exposed to pollution, which can be accordingly used to indicate the presence of contamination.

Environmental Stress Factors

The environmental stress factors in Cape Cod and specifically, the seashore line can be related to three main aspects. The first aspect is the natural process of dune migration. Dunes constitute almost a third of the Cape Cod national seashore, which was formed through the inland blowing of the beach sand after the glacial retreat. As previously mentioned, the stabilization of the surface was mainly linked to vegetation, a large portion of which was removed during the European settlements in 1800s (Smith). Accordingly, the sparse vegetation led to that the dunes are constantly shifting, where since 1938, the dune migration was estimated to be 200 m, and despite the stabilization of dune movement in the 80’s and 90’s, the movement of dunes was renewed in the present century (Forman et al.). The main consequences of the migration can be seen through the change in the height of sand, and accordingly the change in the ecosystem through changes in the patterns of vegetation and its distribution.

Another environmental stress factor can be seen through the growth of the population. Linking this statement to Cape Cod, it can be said that despite the protection of the coastal area and the creation of the national park, population growth is still a major factor in the environment. From 1970 to 2000, the population of Cape Cod almost doubled to 200,000, and the number of housing units increased by 76% (NPS “Natural Resource Management”). The influence of such factors can be seen through the corresponding increase in new roads, waste and wastewater disposals, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers, all of which pose a threat to the Cape Cod aquatic and terrestrial resources (NPS “Natural Resource Management”).

Another risk factor that can be considered is the water quality in Cape Cod. Despite the fact that water quality is still high in “freshwater ponds, estuaries and seashore beaches” (NPS “Environmental Factors”), the current and future developments in the area might put the aforementioned fact at risk. In that regard, non-point source pollution, septic systems, atmospheric depositions, recreational activities and other factors pose a threat to the quality of ground and surface water. The challenge of the management of such factors is in the balance between the preservation of the environment and keeping Cape Cod as an attraction for tourists.

Management and Monitoring

The management of the previously indicated factors is a major responsibility through which the environmental concern is being fulfilled. In that regard, the area of management contains many intervention programs aimed at handling the issue in different aspects. Most of the programs imply the process of monitoring the activities and the changes, which might arise in Cape Cod’s environment. For example, dune vegetation monitoring is concerned with the way the dunes evolve through time and provides responses to such influences, while in parallel, dune planting programs are concerned with the stabilization of the dunes to prevent their migration (NPS “Plant Ecology; Smith). Accordingly, the stabilization would also be benefitted from limiting vehicle traffic, which destroys “the structural integrity of algal crusts and, consequently, their soil stabilization and water retention properties” (NPS “Algal Crusts of the Dunes “). Water management programs are concerned with protection, conservation and the seashore’s water resources, the responsibility of which is maintaining the balance between the preservation of the environment and the recreational nature of the parking zone. Additionally, erosion control interventions are helping to prevent the natural changes and the coastal processes taking place. In terms of flora and fauna, the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act helps to identify, monitor and protect the species which are in danger due to human or natural threats.

It can be concluded that a combination of characteristics mentioned in the paper, makes Cape Cod a unique area of land. The environmental concern paid to the area is justified, as there are many environmental factors of risk, which either due to natural processes or man intervention, pose a threat to the environment’s sustainability. In that regard, it can be said that the establishment of monitoring programs will help to manage these factors and preserve the environment as close as possible to its natural form.

Works Cited

Botkin, Daniel B., and Edward A. Keller. Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet. 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007. Print.

Forman, S. L., et al. “The Relation between 20th Century Dune Migration and Wetland Formation at Cape Cod National Seashore”. Earth Sciences Remote Sensing. 2009. Web.

NPS. “Algal Crusts of the Dunes “. 2009. National Park Service. Web.

“Cape Cod: Animals”. 2009. National Park Service. Web.

“Cape Cod: Nature & Science”. 2009. National Park Service. Web.

“Environmental Factors”. National Park Service. 2009. Web.

“Natural Resource Management”. Natural Park Service. 2009. Web.

“Plant Ecology “. National Park Service. 2009. Web.

Portnoy, John. “Native Salt Marsh Plants and Animals”. National Park Service. 2009. Web.

Smith, Stephen M. “Dune Vegetation Monitoring – 2005”. 2006. National Park Service. 2009. Web.

USGS. “Geologic History of Cape Cod, Massachusetts”. 2001. U.S. Geological Survey. 2009. Web.

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