Forests protect aquatic communities from detrimental impact by volcanic deposits in the tropical Andes (Ecuador)

Montoya, Encarni; Matthews-Bird, Frazer; Brooks, Stephen J. and Gosling, William D. (2021). Forests protect aquatic communities from detrimental impact by volcanic deposits in the tropical Andes (Ecuador). Regional Environmental Change, 21, article no. 53.



Volcanic activity impacts ecosystems sometimes with multiple, complex and long-lasting consequences, including volcanic tephra (airborne material) causing widespread disruptions. We study the effects of tephra deposition around two tropical lakes of Ecuador using a multi-proxy analysis of lake sediment archives spanning the last 2000 years. We present the dynamics of terrestrial vegetation (pollen), aquatic macroinvertebrate fauna (chironomids) and organic matter (stable isotopes) in: (i) a high elevation, stream-connected, open alpine grassland (Andean páramo) and (ii) a mid-elevation, stream-isolated, pre-montane forest. Páramo vegetation showed a slight increase in herbs and quick recovery after the tephra deposition; however, the aquatic community suffered a regime shift not reversed today c. 1500 years after the event. In the pre-montane location, the canopy opened up following tephra deposition, and it took c. 150 years to return to pre-impact levels. At the forested site, no major changes in the aquatic fauna were observed related to the tephra deposition. We hypothesise that the forest acted as a protective barrier preventing a large fallout of ash into the aquatic system. Forest not only acted as a buffer for ash falling into the water from the air, but also prevented landslides of tephra by enhancing soil stability, contrary to what was observed in the open system. We demonstrate the protective ecosystem service that forests play in sustaining ecological resilience and water quality facing natural (volcanic) disturbance. The ongoing deforestation of tropical regions therefore might increase the vulnerability of aquatic ecosystems, threatening the water quality for ecosystems and human populations.

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