Yet that's exactly what researchers have found on the sandy beaches of south central Chile, after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami in 2010. Their study also revealed a preview of the problems wrought by sea level rise –– a major symptom of climate change.
The magnitude and direction of land-level change brought the greatest impact, drowning beaches especially where the tsunami exacerbated earthquake-induced subsidence –– and widening and flattening beaches where the earthquake brought uplift. The drowned beach areas suffered mortality of intertidal life; the widened beaches quickly saw the return of plants and animals that had vanished due to the effects of coastal armoring.
"With the study in California and our study here, we knew that building coastal defense structures, such as seawalls, decreases beach area, and that a seawall results in the decline of intertidal diversity," said lead author Eduardo Jaramillo, of Universidad Austral de Chile. "But after the earthquake, where significant continental uplift occurred, the beach area that had been lost due to coastal armoring has now been restored. And the re-colonization of the mobile beach fauna was under way just weeks after."
With responses varying so widely depending on land-level changes, mobility of flora and fauna, and shore type, the findings show not only that the interactions of extreme events with armored beaches can produce surprising ecological outcomes –– but also suggest that landscape alteration, including armoring, can leave lasting footprints in coastal ecosystems.
"When someone builds a seawall, not only is beach habitat covered up with the wall itself, but, 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. This is an underappreciated human impact on coastlines around the world, and with climate change squeezing beaches further, it's a very serious issue to consider."
Jaramillo elaborated, "This is very important because sandy beaches represent about 80 percent of the open coastlines globally. Also, sandy beaches are very good barriers against the sea level rise we are seeing around the world. It is essential to take care of sandy beaches. They are not only important for recreation, but also for conservation."
The study is said to be the first-ever quantification of earthquake and tsunami effects on sandy beach ecosystems along a tectonically active coastal zone.
Shelly Leachman | EurekAlert!
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