Science Current Events | Science News |

First-of-its-Kind Study Reveals Surprising Ecological Effects of 2010 Chile Earthquake

May 07, 2012

The reappearance of long-forgotten habitats and the resurgence of species unseen for years may not be among the expected effects of a natural disaster.

Yet that's exactly what researchers found in a study of 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.

In a scientific first, researchers from Southern University of Chile and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) were able to document the before-and-after ecological impacts of such cataclysmic occurrences.

A paper appearing today in the journal PLoS ONE details the surprising results of their study, pointing to the potential effects of natural disasters on sandy beaches worldwide.

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.

"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 UCSB.

"As expected, we saw high mortality of intertidal life on beaches and rocky shores, but the ecological recovery at some of our sandy beach sites was remarkable.

"Plants are coming back in places where there haven't been plants, as far as we know, for a very long time. The earthquake created sandy beach habitat where it had been lost. This is not the initial ecological response you might expect from a major earthquake and tsunami."

Their findings owe a debt to serendipity.

The researchers were knee-deep in a study supported by FONDECYT in Chile and the U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF) Santa Barbara Coastal Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site of how sandy beaches in Santa Barbara and south central Chile respond, ecologically, to man-made armoring such as seawalls and rocky revetments.

By late January, 2010, they had surveyed nine beaches in Chile.

The earthquake hit in February.

Recognizing a unique opportunity, the scientists changed gears and within days were back on the beaches to reassess their study sites in the catastrophe's aftermath.

They've returned many times since, documenting the ecological recovery and long-term effects of the earthquake and tsunami on these coastlines, in both natural and human-altered settings.

"It was fortunate that these scientists had a research program in the right place--and at the right time--to allow them to determine the responses of coastal species to natural catastrophic events," said David Garrison, program director for NSF's coastal and ocean LTER sites.

The magnitude and direction of land-level change resulting from the earthquake and exacerbated by the tsunami brought great effects, namely the drowning, widening and flattening of beaches.

The drowned beach areas suffered mortality of intertidal life; the widened beaches quickly saw the return of biota that had vanished due to the effects of coastal armoring.

"With the study in California and Chile, 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 paper author Eduardo Jaramillo of the 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," said Jaramillo. "And the re-colonization of the mobile beach fauna was underway just weeks afterward."

The findings show that the interactions of extreme events with armored beaches can produce surprising ecological outcomes. They also suggest that landscape alteration, including armoring, can leave lasting footprints in coastal ecosystems.

"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," said Dugan.

"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."

Sandy beaches represent about 80 percent of the open coastlines globally, said Jaramillo.

"Beaches are very good barriers against sea level rise. They're important for recreation--and for conservation."

The National Science Foundation (NSF)

Related Earthquake Current Events and Earthquake News Articles

From nanocrystals to earthquakes, solid materials share similar failure characteristics
Apparently, size doesn't always matter. An extensive study by an interdisciplinary research group suggests that the deformation properties of nanocrystals are not much different from those of the Earth's crust.

Discovery of hidden earthquake presents challenge to earthquake early-warning systems
Seismologists at the University of Liverpool studying the 2011 Chile earthquake have discovered a previously undetected earthquake which took place seconds after the initial rupture.

Climate change is moving mountains, research says
For millions of years global climate change has altered the structure and internal movement of mountain ranges, but the resulting glacial development and erosion can in turn change a mountain's local climate. The degree of this cause-and-effect relationship has never been clearly observed, until now.

Supervolcanoes likely triggered externally, study finds
Supervolcanoes, massive eruptions with potential global consequences, appear not to follow the conventional volcano mechanics of internal pressure building until the volcano blows.

Past earthquakes play a role in future landslides, research suggests
The likelihood of an area experiencing a potentially devastating landslide could be influenced by its previous exposure to earthquakes many decades earlier.

Buried in ash, ancient Salvadoran village shows images of daily life
A continuing look at a Maya village in El Salvador--frozen in time by a blanket of volcanic ash from 1,400 years ago--shows the farming families who lived there went about their daily lives with virtually no strong-arming by the elite royalty lording over the valley.

Scientists map source of Northwest's next big quake
A large team of scientists has nearly completed the first map of the mantle under the tectonic plate that is colliding with the Pacific Northwest and putting Seattle, Portland and Vancouver at risk of the largest earthquakes and tsunamis in the world.

Physics of booming and burping sand dunes revealed
Avalanching sand from dune faces in Death Valley National Park and the Mojave Desert can trigger loud, rumbling "booming" or short bursts of "burping" sounds -- behaving as a perfectly tuned musical instrument.

Japanese sea defense guidelines could assist other tsunami-prone nations, study suggests
Japan's lead in implementing sea defence improvements to guard against future disasters is an important reference point for other tsunami-prone nations, a study led by Plymouth University has suggested.

Triggered earthquakes give insight into changes below Earth's surface
It is well known that an earthquake in one part of the world can trigger others thousands of kilometers away.
More Earthquake Current Events and Earthquake News Articles


by Seymour Simon (Author)

Seymour Simon knows how to explain science to kids and make it fun. He was a teacher for over twenty years, has written more than 250 books, and has won multiple awards. In Earthquakes, Simon introduces elementary-school readers to earthquakes through engaging descriptions and stunning full-color photographs. He teaches readers why and how earthquakes happen and the damage they can cause through pictures, diagrams, and maps. He also gives real life examples of earthquakes that have occurred all over the world. This book includes a glossary and index.Supports the Common Core State Standards

Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest

Full-Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest
by Sandi Doughton (Author)

Scientists have identified Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver as the urban centers of what will be the biggest earthquake—the Really Big One—in the continental United States. A quake will happen--in fact it's actually overdue. The Cascadia subduction zone is 750 miles long, running along the Pacific coast from Northern California up to southern British Columbia. In this fascinating book, The Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton introduces readers to the scientists who are dedicated to understanding the way the earth moves and describes what patterns can be identified and how prepared (or not) people are. With a 100% chance of a mega-quake hitting the Pacific Northwest, this fascinating book reports on the scientists who are trying to understand when, where, and just how big THE...

Earthquakes (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)

Earthquakes (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)
by Franklyn M. Branley (Author), Megan Lloyd (Illustrator)

Read and find out about one of nature's most mysterious forces—the earthquake. Some earthquakes are so small that you don't even feel them, while others can make even big buildings shake! Learn why earthquakes happen, where they are most likely to occur, and what to do if one happens near you.


by Milly Lee (Author), Yangsook Choi (Illustrator)

This morning the earth shook
and threw us from our beds.
We were not hurt, just stunned.
Drawers spilled, dishes crashed,
pots and pans clanged as
they fell.
Ancestral portraits flew off
the walls.

Milly Lee's mother was eight years old in 1906, when San Francisco was shaken by a powerful earthquake. Buildings fell, fires flared, and the city burned for several days.

This is the stirring story of one Chinese American family who had to leave their home in Chinatown on that early morning to join hundreds of other refugees making their way to safety.


by Aprilynne Pike (Author)

The heart-stopping sequel to earthbound and an epic love triangle like you've never seen before!tavia michaels is an earthbound - a fallen goddess with the power to remake the earth or destroy it. The reduciata, a rival faction of earthbounds, has created a virus that is wiping out swathes of the planet. But before tavia can act on this discovery, she is captured and imprisoned. Huddled in a cell with her eternal lover, logan, she loses track of the days until they are mysteriously rescued...for tavia isn't like other earthbound. As her powers awaken, her centuries-long relationship with logan is threatened, and when benson - the best friend who's always stood by her - returns tavia must again face a terrible choice between those she loves. Can tavia stop the destruction of earth and...

Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault

Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault
by John Dvorak (Author)

The lives of millions will be changed after it breaks, and yet so few people understand it, or even realize it runs through their backyard. Dvorak reveals the San Andreas Fault’s fascinating history―and it’s volatile future.It is a prominent geological feature that is almost impossible to see unless you know where to look. Hundreds of thousands of people drive across it every day. The San Andreas Fault is everywhere, and primed for a colossal quake. For decades, scientists have warned that such a sudden shifting of the Earth’s crust is inevitable. In fact, it is a geologic necessity.The San Andreas fault runs almost the entire length of California, from the redwood forest to the east edge of the Salton Sea. Along the way, it passes through two of the largest urban areas of the...

National Geographic Kids Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes: Earthshaking photos, facts, and fun!

National Geographic Kids Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes: Earthshaking photos, facts, and fun!
by Kathy Furgang (Author)

National Geographic Kids Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes explodes with incredible photos and amazing facts about the awesome powers of nature. You'll find out that three-quarters of Earth's volcanoes are underwater, that an earthquake in Chile shortened the day by 1.26 milliseconds, and much more. Bursting with fascinating information about the biggest volcanic eruptions and earth-shattering earthquakes, this book takes a fun approach to science, introducing kids to plate tectonics and the tumultuous forces brewing beneath the Earth's surface. Filled with fabulous photos and peppered with great facts, this is a must-have for all young nature lovers, sure to satisfy kids' curiosity about natural disasters and the powers of nature.

Tom Swift and His Wireless Message: or, the castaways of Earthquake island

Tom Swift and His Wireless Message: or, the castaways of Earthquake island

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition includes wireless delivery.

DK Readers L4: Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters

DK Readers L4: Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters
by Harriet Griffey (Author)

DK is reissuing some of its most beloved Readers with a fresh new look, perfect for 21st century kids! From the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters brings readers face to face with some of the deadliest natural disasters of all time and teaches the scientific forces that cause these incredible events.

Jump into Science: Earthquakes

Jump into Science: Earthquakes
by Ellen J. Prager (Author), Susan Greenstein (Illustrator)

What causes earthquakes? Where do they happen most? What should you do if you feel the earth shake? Just follow the friendly crow-in-the-know for all the answers!

National Geographic supports K-12 educators with ELA Common Core Resources.
Visit for more information.

© 2015