The ‘Sahara’ of Taiwan: A New Local Geopark and the Potentials of Sand Dunes

Written by Viola van Onselen and Tsung-Yi Lin.

Image credit: Research area at Taoyuan coastal zone is bounded by the borders of the newly established Caota Sand Dunes Geopark by Viola van Onselen.

How does it feel to walk through a desert-like landscape of highly dynamic dunes, and how can Virtual Reality educate people in an interactive way about such an environment? You can now experience this in a new local geopark of Taiwan, the ‘Caota Sand Dunes.’ This geopark promotes the values of coastal dunes, and ongoing research explores new management strategies, local community involvement and the geological history of this environment. This short article highlights the potentials of dunes, the status of dune environments in Taiwan and how this local geopark can set an example as a foundation for Nature-based Solutions.

The importance of sand dunes

Sand dunes are environments that are still undervalued landscapes in Taiwan; it might seem that these bare sand environments do not have any significant value or have little to offer in terms of biodiversity. But in fact, dunes have a lot to offer in biodiversity and unique species adapted to extremely dry and salty conditions. Moreover, coastal dunes are excellent areas to function as a buffer zone between the land and sea; the dunes are the first coastal defence line to protect against rapid erosion, sea-level rise or storms. Coastal dunes are formed by windblown sand deposition and provide sand to help beaches recover after periods of intense erosion. Coastal forests typically found in the older, stabilized dunes behind the dynamic foredunes act as a buffer against sand invasion inland. They are an extra protection zone against storms and coastal erosion while also attracting many species.

Unfortunately, many coastal dunes are disappearing at a vast scale (both globally and in Taiwan), mainly due to human activities such as coastal development, industrialization, sand mining, etc. As a result, over 50% of the coastline has been ‘hardened’ by developments in Taiwan. Moreover, natural ecosystems disappeared or are heavily degraded. Therefore, it is essential to conserve the existing natural areas and benefit from the few coastal dune areas left in the country regarding protection and nature values.

Caota Sand Dune Geopark in Taiwan

A new local Geopark (觀音草漯沙丘) at the coast of Taoyuan, has recently been opened to visitors and promotes the local environment and value of coastal dunes, also referred to as ‘the Sahara Desert of Taiwan.’ The bare foredunes stretch over more than 8 km along the coastline and reach 15 m. This is currently the most extensive dune system in Taiwan, while the name ‘Caota’ refers to the grassy wetlands that have formed behind the dunes due to assembling water from rivers that are blocked by the dunes. This is the first geopark in Taiwan to promote the value of coastal dunes, recognizing their ecological value and their protective function in the face of climate change.

In Taiwan, geoparks need to fulfil four core values; landscape conservation, environmental education, landscape recreation and local participation. With the status of a geopark, this fragile environment will be conserved and protected from further developments or land-use changes. In the visitor centre, the public can learn more about the area through interactive education about dunes. For example, an innovative strategy to create interaction with visitors is a 3D VR experience; people can answer questions while walking through the virtual dunes. Throughout their journey, they will get hints or additional information to answer these questions. With the acquired knowledge, visitors will enter the field with a different understanding and appreciate nature more for its values or discover characteristic features in the field that they might not have noticed before.

Dune rows have formed as a buffer between land and sea, protecting the inland from storms, erosion and sea-level rise.

Besides the educational value, the landscape recreation value of dunes are also high. Forest bathing already is a popular concept in Taiwan, but dune environments can provide very different perspectives and benefits. You can experience the full power of wind force, the vast ocean, explore the beach and witness the dynamics of the foredunes in an ever-changing landscape. Interestingly, a recent study in the Netherlands investigated where people feel most happy, and guess what? Dune environments popped up as number one, as Dutch people tend to feel happier in areas with low vegetation, such as the coast and dune areas.

Dune management, Nature-based Solutions and scientific studies in the area

Due to the vulnerable status of many coastal dunes worldwide, dune management often involves restoring degraded areas and finding ways to stimulate dune-forming processes to conserve and enhance the dune ecosystem. An extensive assessment of the area is essential to determine the future management plans for the Caota Sand Dune Geopark. A current study investigates the degradation status of the dunes. It aims to identify factors that need to be addressed for optimal ecosystem functioning while the area is being managed and conserved as a geopark. After the assessment, different experiments can be conducted to explore which management strategies are most fitting since an important change in coastal dune management approaches has been the revival of dune dynamics to stimulate natural processes, dune growth and biodiversity. Since another value of this geopark is the coastal protection function, the area will be fitting to serve as a Nature-based Solution (a solution promoting working with nature to address societal challenges, providing benefits for both human well-being and biodiversity). Some sections of this new geopark are closed for tourists to let nature recover and grow stronger dunes. Ideally, the dunes will grow with sea-level rise, and they will function as a so-called ‘Nature-Based Solution’ to protect the nearby residents from storms and erosion. Still, the potential of Nature-based Solutions needs to be further explored through assessing the environmental issues in this area to work towards a higher coastal resilience. Other studies in the area focus on the geological history of the dunes, their development and formation processes and the current dune dynamics to create a complete narrative about the natural history of this unique environment.

Field research: measurements on the high sand dunes to determine subsurface features (to gain more information about dune built up)

Taiwan geoparks prioritize local community involvement. In the case of Caota geopark, perceptions of residents and their role in the geopark development will be further explored. Local community input and active participation in geopark planning and monitoring can help stimulate local economies through geotourism and support climate resilience through community-based conservation.

It is hoped that through environmental education and actively involving local communities in this unique coastal environment, the connection with, knowledge about and appreciation for nature is strengthened and that people are motivated to contribute to monitoring actively, management and conservation of nature. Thus, together with motivated people, this new geopark and current research projects can contribute to better protection and sustainable development of the coastal environments in Taiwan.

Viola van Onselen is a PhD candidate, Geography Department at the National Taiwan Normal University.

Tsung-Yi Lin is a Professor and the Head of the Department of Geography at the National Taiwan Normal University.

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