Sep. 17, 1999 (September 16, 1999) – Hurricanes may not be all bad, despite the destruction caused by storms like Andrew, Hugo, Georges, Dennis and now Floyd. While their impact to the environment is often drastic, some researchers think hurricanes may be nature's way of cleaning up.
Hurricane Andrew caused 25 (B) billion dollars in damage to South Florida in 1992, but researchers say it also helped some of the plant and animal life in the area. "Hurricanes break up dead zones of oxygen-poor water by vertically mixing the water column," says NOAA researcher Dr. Craig Mattocks. The mixing disperses pockets of fresh water that are infested with bacteria from stream run-off. In addition, the strong currents created by hurricanes flush out sediment, rubble and weeds from coral reefs, and blast away fungal diseases that damage coral, not to mention drawing up nutrient-rich water from below which provides a major food source for sea life.
Dr. Thomas Michot, from the United States Geological Survey agrees, saying that "hurricanes keep certain types of habitats from being dominated by species that thrive in a more stable environment." Michot is studying the after effects of Hurricane Georges on Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands. The hurricane's impact, while initially devastating to nesting and wintering birds, may in the long run maintain the islands' high quality as a wildlife habitat. Georges completely eliminated some nesting islands, but by scouring the vegetation off some of the areas of higher elevation, it also created new habitats favored by certain types of nesting birds. In addition, many sea grass beds were buried by the storm. But Michot says that the new sediment is being quickly colonized by a sea grass species that is highly valued as a food source to redhead ducks that winter in the area.
Hurricanes may help cleanse the environment of some man-made problems as well. Dr. Mattocks points out that Hurricane Andrew removed most of the non-native Australian pines from Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne. Now the area is being replanted with native vegetation which is better for maintaining local wildlife. The Everglades, which have are draining because of man-made canals, may also benefit from these big storms. Mattocks points out that "hurricanes can create standing water and sheet water flow in the Everglades which restores the natural water cycle." This water revitalizes plant and animal life, and can help prevent and extinguish wildfires.
Dr. Craig A. Mattocks
NOAA-AOML Hurricane Research Division
Dr. Thomas Michot
Research Wildlife Biologist
USGS National Wetlands Research Center
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