International research

Chile’s devastating earthquake triggers environmental resurgence

Two years after one of the strongest earthquakes in history, marine species unseen for years are returning to Chile beaches, bringing lost ecosystems back to life.  

Friday, May 11, 2012  
Lomo Beach at the Pingüino de Humboldt national reserve in La Serena, Chile. (Photo by magnusvk/Flic Lomo Beach at the Pingüino de Humboldt national reserve in La Serena, Chile. (Photo by magnusvk/Flickr)

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Chile on February 27, 2010, would have devastated ecosystems in the Andean nation.


And given the tsunami that followed, you certainly wouldn’t expect it to have triggered a remarkable recovery of tidal ecosystems.


Yet, according to a recently released study by Chilean and U.S. universities, funded by the National Science Foundation, that is exactly what happened.


"So often you think of earthquakes as causing total devastation, and adding a tsunami on top of that is a major catastrophe for coastal ecosystems," said Jenny Dugan, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara and co-author of a study which documented the rebirth of the beach biome.


But contrary to destroying them, the quake sparked a recovery of ecosystems, allowing life to return where human development had destroyed it.


"Plants are coming back in places where there haven't been plants, as far as we know, for a very long time,” Dugan said. “The earthquake created sandy beach habitat where it had been lost."


Why? Because seawalls that had been preventing the buildup of sand and tidal pools were swept away in the 2010 tsunami, allowing for the reappearance of long-forgotten habitats, crustacean communities, and the resurgence of species unseen for years.


"When someone builds a seawall, beach habitat is covered up with the wall itself, and over time sand is lost in front of the wall until the beach eventually drowns," Dugan said. "The semi-dry and damp sand zones of the upper and mid-intertidal are lost first, leaving only the wet lower beach zones. This causes the beach to lose diversity, including birds, and to lose ecological function."


Now, two years on, and that diversity is fast returning.


“After the earthquake, where significant continental uplift occurred, the beach area that had been lost due to coastal armoring has now been restored," said lead paper author Eduardo Jaramillo of the Universidad Austral de Chile. "And the re-colonization of the mobile beach fauna was underway just weeks afterward."


To see the full study, click here.

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