During the period of confinement imposed to face the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been numerous news published in the media around the world about the recovery that nature has experienced by reducing human pressure.
One of the news that has had the greatest presence in national and international media has been the case of the Maspalomas dunes. Different media have assured that they had recovered the state they presented 50 years ago, before the tourist development in the south of Gran Canaria.
These newspaper articles, based on the beauty of images taken during confinement, did not provide scientific data that allow to verify the veracity of the information.
The news has been able to convey to society the confusing and dangerous message that a few months of cessation of tourism are enough to recover the dunes or that the anthropic impacts to which they have been exposed for decades do not pose a risk to their survival.
But have the Maspalomas dunes really recovered after confinement? To answer this question it is necessary to understand its environmental evolution in the last 50 years, as well as assessing their degree of recovery during this period.
The scientific studies carried out on the dunes of Maspalomas have allowed the detection of significant environmental changes associated with tourism development and use.
The environmental problem
To identify and understand the main environmental changes that have occurred in the Maspalomas dunes, we are going to analyze two aerial images (orthophotos). In them we will search the five most obvious differences between the state of the dunes in the 60s of the last century, before the tourist development of the south of Gran Canaria, and today.
The construction of tourist urbanizations and infrastructures. The Playa del Inglés urbanization, the Annex II shopping center and the Maspalomas golf course were partially built on the original dune system. This meant the destruction of 114.5 hectares (24.1%) of the area it occupied in the 1960s.
Increase in vegetation cover inside the dune field. The Playa del Inglés tourist development altered the dynamics of the wind and the transport of sand at the local level into the system. This reduced the area occupied by mobile dunes (-47.8%) and increased that occupied by stabilized dunes (+305.8%).
Setback of more than 70 m on the coastline of Maspalomas beach. It has meant the loss of 7.7 hectares of beach area and dunes.
Increase in deflation surfaces. The dark colored areas seen in the images reveal the existence of erosive processes. This is because more sand leaves the sea than enters the system. Between 1961 and 2003, these erosion areas doubled in size (218.8%).
Reduction of sea bass stocks (Traganum moquinii). Between 1961 and 2003 the populations of this plant decreased more than half (56.2%) in Playa del Inglés. They have completely disappeared from the surroundings of Maspalomas beach.
The rocker is a key piece in the dynamics of the system, as it generates the first vegetated dunes (embryonic dunes and coastal dunes). These vegetated dunes control the transport of the sands into the system., giving rise to the landscape of mobile dunes characteristic of Maspalomas. They also represent a natural barrier to marine storms. They protect the rest of the system and provide sediments that favor the recovery of beaches when they are eroded by the sea.
Have the dunes been recovered?
The claim that the Maspalomas dunes have recovered from the impacts caused in the last five decades and show their original landscape again must be based on scientific data that corroborate this fact.
We can look for evidence by comparing the environmental changes indicated above and what we know today:
The dune system has not recovered the surface it had in the 60s of the last century. This is totally impossible because it is completely surrounded by infrastructures, equipment and buildings.
The area occupied by the moving dunes it has not been the same than the one existing before tourism development.
The coastline on Maspalomas beach has not recovered the position it had in 1961.
Deflation surfaces continue to show a very significant extension. In any case, this is higher than the one it had before the tourist development. Within the framework of the Masdunas project, carried out by the Cabildo de Gran Canaria, 60,000 m³ of sand have been injected into the system. Much of this volume would have been irretrievably lost at sea if it had not been extracted. This sand, predictably, will help reduce deflation surfaces.
Currently the number of balancones is much lower than in 1961. In the repopulations carried out within the framework of the Masdunas project at least 522 specimens of this species have been planted —384 for the reinforcement of their populations and 138 for the generation of new dunes—, but it is still too early to know what percentage has survived.
The changes experienced by the dunes of Maspalomas during confinement they are fundamentally aesthetic. The formation and persistence of ripples on the dunes in the absence of visitors has been especially highlighted.
The ripples are ephemeral landforms generated by the wind when it moves the sand. In conditions of tourist use, are trampled by the large influx of people who come to Maspalomas.
The conservation of these small undulations during the confinement shows the excessive and uncontrolled traffic of visitors. These roam the entire system off the beaten track as a consequence of the absence of vigilance and the lack of civility.
Surveillance and information
The wide media coverage of the aforementioned news shows the interest of society to recover this unique environment. But to reduce the impact of users and try to stop the progressive deterioration of the Maspalomas dunes, the provisions of the Master Plan of the Special Natural Reserve of the Dunes of Maspalomas.
It is necessary to perform a control of the transit of people through adequate work of constant surveillance and information and environmental education programs for visitors to this protected natural area.
The absence of tourists during the confinement has put the focus on the aesthetic recovery of the Maspalomas dunes. However, reversing the progressive deterioration that has occurred in recent decades will only be possible through suppression or minimization of environmental impacts associated with tourist use.
We are facing a chance unique for flee from management based on political wills and take the step towards effective management in accordance with the environmental and socioeconomic relevance of this space. To achieve this, it is essential to combine scientific research, active management, compliance with regulations and the participation of social and economic agents.
* Antonio Ignacio Hernández Cordero is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; Abel San Romualdo Collado is a researcher in Training at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; Carolina Peña Alonso is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Oceanography and Global Change at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; Leví García Romero is a doctor in Oceanography and Global Change at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; Luis F. Hernández Calvento is a tenured professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
** This article was originally published on The Conversation.