January is often a time to struggle with recently made resolutions. However, for me, every three years or so, January has meant packing my bags and field equipment and hopping a plane to the far end of South America.
A while back I’d been doing scientific research at Mount St. Helens studying the way the ecosystems were recovering from the 1980 eruption (ecosystems are the networks of interacting animals, plants, soils and nutrients that form the living world we can observe). I got the opportunity to do the same work in Chile on two recently erupted volcanoes: Chaitén (erupted 2009), and Cordon Caulle (erupted 2011).
Our expedition began in the busy but ill-kempt town of Puerto Montt, frequently known as the “Gateway to Patagonia.” Our team was a motley crew of technicians, Master’s students, government employees and university professors. We headed south not by road, but by ferry. Roads run through most of Patagonia, but steep, heavily forested terrain and low population makes it infeasible to build in many places. Regular ferries make up for the gaps. Ferries are a peaceful way to travel. Dark forested hills glide by, so steep that landslides tear scars in places. In the distance towering white peaks come and go behind the clouds. It would be easy to think you were sailing into untouched wilderness if it weren’t for the yellow buoys cordoning off the fish farms and marring the view.
Chaitén, the volcano we were visiting first, wasn’t one of these soaring peaks. No one even knew it was a volcano until it erupted. It did so catastrophically and sent a scalding mudflow rushing over half the unsuspecting town nearby. But people are resilient and in 2012, when we arrived, water and electricity had finally been restored. The sounds of hammers and saws were heard constantly as people rebuilt.
It would have been best to study every type of volcanic disturbance Chaitén created, but fascinating areas like the “Valley of Death,” an area buried under an impressive three stories of ash, can only be reached by helicopter — a luxury ecological crews can’t often afford. We confined our study to ash fall and landslide areas accessible by road, but there were still plenty of things to learn about this enigmatic volcano.
We crawled over fallen logs and pushed our way through ferns three times our height to find plots installed right after the eruption. These were photographed, vegetation cataloged, and insects collected, all so we could quantify what was happening in this ecosystem.
Perhaps because of warm temperatures, or perhaps just because volcanoes erupt so frequently in southern Chile that plants may have adapted to periodic destruction, but four years after its eruption, life was flourishing on Chaitén’s slopes. Sprouts emerged from fallen logs, umbrella-sized leaves shoved out of rocky debris and scrappy bamboo already formed dense thickets. Everything was more abundant and alive than Mount St. Helens had been at a similar phase in its own recovery.
Cordon Caulle, our second stop, had erupted just the summer before, and hadn’t bothered to stop. Ash was still falling from the sky and we wandered about doing our science, wearing masks like survivors of some desolate, dystopian future.
Caulle was different than at Chaitén. Everything at Caulle had to be decided, as no studies had yet been set up. We drove from one area of destruction to another and shoveled layers of ash to find out what lay alive beneath. Once we decided where to install plots, it didn’t take long to complete our measurements — nothing much seemed to be alive. However, all this ash presented the opportunity for an interesting new study. What would happen to the ecosystem if you removed it? Would the ecosystem recover quicker if it wasn’t buried in a dense, grey deposit? We broke out our shovels again and dug down to the dirt over and over again, being careful not to damage the surviving plants beneath. Each pit was paired with an adjoining plot we didn’t dig out.
There wasn’t much difference in that first year, but three years later the story was fascinating. Those plots that had seen the shovel were green and thriving, but only a few sad seedlings were struggling to take root in the plots where we’d left the ash in place. Caulle had a few other surprises as well. We’d thought the eruption had killed all the trees due to the gray, toasted demeanor of everything after our first survey. Upon our return, we discovered survival depended on what type of tree we were talking about. Evergreen trees withered and died as chemicals in the volcanic ash mixed with rainfall to create a corrosive acid that destroyed their leaves. Deciduous trees, on the other hand, fared much better. Post-eruption, they let their damaged leaves drop and went dormant only to send out a fresh crop of leaves next spring, and most survived.
Chaitén too had changed in three years. What had been dense scrub was now a proper jungle, which left us wishing a machete was part of our scientific tool kit. Trees had shot up from the ground to tower over us, spindly still but intent on blocking out the sky. The photos we take to document the change in the landscape no longer show actual “landscapes,” just one big leaf after another.
Our return to Chile was not just to check up on old volcanoes, but to study the aftermath of yet another eruption, Calbuco (2015). Most of the eruptions we’ve studied include a number of different disturbance types. Pumice tossed across great expanses of land, areas buried under ash, or landscapes caught in landslides. At Calbuco, there is only one abundant disturbance type — rock fall. Volcanic rocks, most smaller than a golf ball, were shot high into the air to rain down on the landscape, burying it in under three feet of stone. A rock rain cannot be considered gentle. The forest was stripped of leaves, bark and even limbs until it looked like a skeletal remnant.
Closer investigation proved that the trees were putting up an unexpected fight for survival. Nearly every single trunk and partially shattered limb was sprouting, sending out new growth to seek out the sun’s energy these trees need to survive.
Will it work? We don’t know yet. That’s one of those questions we hope to answer as we pack our bags again in 2018 and head south to see what mysteries Chile has for us this time.
Elsie Denton is a Hood River native. She graduated from HRVHS in 2004 and got her Bachelor’s in Biology from Colgate University in 2009. She obtained a Master’s degree in ecology from Colorado State University in 2014. She studies plant communities and ecosystems — with a primary interest in how these systems change in response to outside inputs such as drought, climate change and volcanic eruptions. Awesome places Denton has been able to do research include: Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, Eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Chile. Currently she works at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns, where she is studying how to maintain and restore sagebrush steppe ecosystems.