Climate change is happening slowly but steadily, and rising temperatures in the Atacama Desert, where daily temperature fluctuations are also more abrupt, are altering animal, ecosystem and plant life.
One of those affected is the tamarugo, an endemic tree that grows mainly in the pampas, the largest native plantation in Chile, in the middle of this great desert.
For this reason, a recent study by the Catholic University of Valparaíso and the Millennium Nucleus of Applied Historical Ecology for Arid Forests (Aforest) analyzed their past, present and future and found that due to the extreme conditions of climate change, between now and 2050, 50% of the Tamarugos would disappear, meaning there would only be 500,000 copies left.
In parallel, a study by the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Chile shows how the air carnation has moved to survive climate change. The analysis shows how the organization of Tillandsia landbeckii has changed dramatically in recent years. The findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Science Advances.
Regarding the value of the tamarugo to the ecosystem in the north of the country, Francisca Díaz, associate director of the Millennium Nucleus of Applied Historical Ecology for Arid Forests, points out that “it’s a species that makes it, the pampas and everything else to colonize.” The biodiversity associated with it is the key to the “habitability” of this area.
Marcel Clerc, an academician from the Faculty of Physics of the Faculty of Physical Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Chile, and David Pinto, a PhD student in natural sciences with a major in physics at the University of Chile, have led the monitoring spatial behavior of Tillandsia landbeckii.
The species is “capable of surviving in very extreme conditions and is an expert at scavenging water from mists,” says Clerc. “What has been collected here tells us that these plants are on the verge of extinction if conditions continue to deteriorate,” he adds.
The leaves of the Tamarugo move to reduce the radiation exposure they are exposed to during the summer and bright hours. “This movement is called heliotropism,” notes Díaz.
“This organism lives in the coastal areas of the great north of Chile, mainly between Vallenar and Arica and also in the southern zone of Peru. In doing so, it leaves a trail that resembles the lines of a tiger,” Pinto explains the air carnation. .
The Tamarugo project has studied the species from a thousand-year perspective, for example by examining its fossil phyla, some thirteen thousand years old, found in absolute desert areas in the middle of the dunes.
These fossil logs were then used by firewood hunters who dug them out from under the dunes in the 19th and early 20th centuries (at the time of the saltpeter mines). They occupied the damp spots left by the Camanchaca to find the buried logs.
The Tamarugo is so badly affected by extreme climate change “because it survives on groundwater and is therefore very sensitive to a drop in groundwater levels,” says Díaz.
Studying the Tamarugo allows us to understand its changes over the millennia since the Ice Age. In addition, after the production of the tamarugo fruit, early indicators of the condition of the tree are observed, such as how much groundwater it has. When the depth of the subterranean layer is six meters, “we speak of a normal level, between six and ten meters we begin to observe the flaking and loss of leaves,” says the researcher.
Researchers at the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso studied human-forest interactions on a millennial scale, providing clues as to how they have responded to climate changes like the ones we are experiencing today. Its importance has been documented in paleoecological and archaeological records for 13,000 years.
Little is known about its further history, however, since 8,000 years ago this species was barely visible in the records and that is something we want to characterize better, “since it is an endemic tree, to see how the populations in distributed throughout the region.” Given the extreme drought,” explains Díaz, clarifying that the work is still ongoing.
To achieve these results, Clerc and Pinto used advanced mathematical techniques from nonlinear physics, accompanied by numerical simulations to verify them. Measurements were also made using other satellite images of vegetation in the Atacama Desert, arid areas of Texas, the United States and Sudan, all of which showed similar characteristics and were in the order predicted by the theory.
“It would be very interesting to see how far the adaptability of Latillandsia landbeckii can go. We’ve seen it disperse mostly in an inhomogeneous way, something like taking advantage of the areas where there’s more moisture, and that means it separates from itself.” “It doesn’t want to compete with its conspecifics, to capture every available drop of water and mist…he definitely knows how to survive,” concludes Clerc.