Earthquake destroys Belizean reefs

A new paper in Ecology (Aronson et al 2011) describes the effects of an earthquake on the already beleagured reefs of Belize.  I edited the paper and coincidentally my lab was in Belize doing reef surveys when the earthquake hit (I flew home that day).  Some of the students were a bit rattled, others slept right through it!

Earth’s coral reefs have not been faring well in recent decades, facing multiple threats from pollution, disease, elevated water temperatures, and overfishing. A new study looks at a rare but catastrophic impact on reefs: the damage caused by natural disasters such as an earthquakes.

In May of 2009, a powerful, magnitude-7.3 earthquake shook the western Caribbean, causing lagoonal reefs in Belize, 213 kilometers (132 miles) from the epicenter, to avalanche and slide into deeper water. Richard Aronson of the Florida Institute of Technology and colleagues analyzed data that suggest how the history of the reef will influence its recovery.

Aronson and colleagues’ work focused on a 375-square-kilometer (144-square-mile) area of the Belizean Barrier Reef, which they monitored from 1986 to 2009. The group revisited 21 sites in 2010 to determine the impacts of the earthquake. They found that approximately half the reef slopes had slabbed off and slid into deeper water. Only sediment and the skeletal debris of corals remained.

“The rhetoric of conservation often includes the appeal of preserving ecosystems so that our children’s children can enjoy Nature’s bounty,” says Aronson. “That translates to about 200 years, but ecosystems last far longer than three generations of their human stewards. We challenge marine conservationists to plan on a millennial scale. Rare, catastrophic events are the backdrop to human actions. Those rare events should be factored into determining the sizes of marine reserves and their levels of protection, whatever else might be expected to happen along the way. After all, a once-in-a-thousand-year disaster could still occur next week.”

Read it all at Science Daily.

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