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Special Issue of Estuaries and Coasts Shows Environment Resilient in the Face of Hurricanes, But Questions Remain

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Cover of special issue of Estuaries and Coast
Above: Cover of special issue of Estuaries and Coasts, showing a small part of the east coast of Florida, including the south end of Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie inlet, and St. Lucie estuary. Barrier island on upper right is Hutchinson Island, where Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne had almost identical landfalls within a 3-week period in September 2004, providing a rare opportunity to examine the effects of repeated hurricane impacts on coastal-ecosystem responses. [larger version]
Several U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists contributed to a special issue of the journal Estuaries and Coasts, focused on the effects of hurricanes on coastal systems. "One surprising conclusion that can be drawn from this collection of research is that natural systems are actually quite resilient in the face of these storms," said Holly Greening, senior scientist for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and one of the guest editors for the special issue. "While hurricanes often wreak havoc with human systems and infrastructure, many of the habitats and organisms we studied rebounded quite well in the weeks and months following the 2004 storms."

Estuaries and Coasts is a bimonthly scientific journal published by the international Estuarine Research Federation (ERF) to report research about ecosystems at the land-sea interface. The hurricane special edition, published as the journal's December 2006 issue, is available to the public at URL http://www.erf.org/. The impetus for this special issue was the intense 2004 hurricane season, in which four major hurricanes made landfall in Florida within a 3-month period. USGS contributions include articles on shoreline change caused by the 2004 hurricanes, the effects of major storms on processes that control coastal-wetland elevations, red mangrove reproduction and seedling colonization after Hurricane Charley in 2004, and possible effects of the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes on manatee movement and survival rates.

"This special issue compiles research findings and results of long-term monitoring to give us a chance to look at these large, anomalous storms in the context of long-term trends," said Greening. The articles' authors explore both the individual and cumulative effects of storms on coastal environments, animals, and plants, and examine the effect of these storms on coastal management. The severe hurricanes in 2005 make such findings of great interest to scientists, the public, and coastal resource managers.

For example, water quality and phytoplankton productivity—a measure of the health of the base of the food web—were impacted by winds and heavy rainfall, but returned to normal within months. One study found that storm-induced movements of manatees away from their home ranges were much smaller than expected. Aquatic plants, referred to as submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), had a more varying response to hurricane-induced stress, in some cases rebounding and in others exhibiting long-term damage.

Damage to shoreline ecosystems varied as well. Dune erosion due to hurricanes was severe in some places but not others. In some parts of coastal Louisiana, large sections of wetlands were lost in extreme-storm events.

"A major research goal is to use these unique data sets to develop and test a new hurricane scale for predicting the coastal impacts of extreme storms," noted issue contributor Abby Sallenger of the St. Petersburg, Fla., office of the USGS.

The varying impacts seemed to depend, at least in part, on the characteristics of the storms themselves: direction and speed of approach, point of landfall, and intensity all made a difference in the extent of environmental damage. Storms that carried more rainfall seemed to do more long-term damage than "hit-and-run" storms with higher winds.

"The research compiled in this issue of Estuaries and Coasts is an excellent start in understanding the environmental impacts of these storms," said Greening, "but many questions still need to be answered. We still need to know how storm frequency and intensity, both predicted to increase in the coming years, interact to impact coastal environments and communities. Another outstanding question is the extent to which human alteration of the shoreline determines the coast’s resiliency to storms."

Scientists and managers contributing to the special issue represent more than 25 institutions, including the USGS, the University of Florida, the University of North Carolina, Alabama’s Dauphin Island Sea Lab, and a host of local governments.

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Surveying Faults and Sediment Outside San Francisco Bay

Submarine Ground-Water Discharge at Dor Beach, Israel

Outreach Middle-School Students Envision a Future City

Meetings Assessing Microbes in Ground Water

Chinese Delegation Briefed on USGS Science

Restore America's Estuaries Conference

Awards Scuba Scouts Recognize USGS Employees

Publications Estuaries and Coasts Special Issue

March Publications List

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