MIAMI — Along with their destructive force, hurricanes can have beneficial effects as part of the rhythm of nature.
Storms that erode beaches, uproot trees and flatten wildlife habitats may also refresh waterways, revive dry areas and bulk up barrier islands with redistributed sand.
“What we see is the damage it does to our structures, but it can actually renew areas,” said Karen Westphal, a coastal scientist at Louisiana State University’s School of the Coast and Environment.
Hurricane Frances could help the Everglades, which is already undergoing a $8.4 billion environmental restoration.
Flushing out the Everglades
“Hurricanes are a vital part of the natural process,” said Nick Auman, an aquatic ecologist at Everglades National Park. Hurricane Frances may serve “as a flushing-out mechanism in areas of the Everglades where sediment has accumulated on the bottom of waterways.”
Frances may help eliminate some invasive exotic plants in the area, such as Australian pines, but also could end up helping others if high wind disperses seeds to new places.
However, human changes to the Everglades may prevent it from recovering from flooding caused by the slow-moving hurricane, Auman said. “We’ve had so much impact on the Everglades as human beings that we have hampered its ability to bounce back from big events like this.”
The storm’s changes also can affect animal life.
Beach mice in Florida’s Panhandle become easy targets for predators in flattened areas. But new dunes might shield beaches from lights that confuse sea turtles when they come ashore to lay eggs and their babies after hatching, said Seth Blitch, a biologist who is the head of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Hurricane Charley, the biggest storm to hit Florida in more than a decade, made significant changes to southwest Florida’s beach landscape in August. Charley sliced the barrier island of North Captiva in half, creating a new inlet joining the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound.
Charley’s wind and rain also likely stirred up old debris and pollutants, which could hurt the environment, said Hans Paerl, professor of marine and environmental science at the University of North Carolina.
“A lot has to do with the frequency of these hurricanes, too,” he said. “If you get three or four hurricanes right in a row, probably the second or third are more beneficial because they bring in cleaner water” after sediments and old debris are flushed out by the earlier storm.
Frances’ impact is yet to be determined, but Westphal said the environment will be fine.
“Nature will go back into a balance,” she said. “It will just not be what humans are used to. Humans don’t like change. Nature doesn’t mind, it just balances itself out.”
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