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Water-Related News

All the ways hurricanes can harm — and help — the ecosystems they hit

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma set records with their power, and the devastation they left in their wake. Irma has destroyed more than 90 percent of the structures on some Caribbean islands. All told, Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons of water over Texas and Louisiana, swelling floodwaters that have been very slow to drain. Harvey has left its stamp on the landscape, too; the storm appears to have actually pushed a piece of the planet's crust down by more than half an inch.

There are a lot of ways that major storms can impact the ecosystem. When a hurricane hits, animals can be swept away or stranded, trees splintered, and coastal lands swallowed up. “Hurricanes are like people—they’re really different, each one of them, in terms of how they express themselves,” says Tom Doyle, deputy director of the United States Geological Survey Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. This violent self-expression can be dictated by many features, from a storm’s path and intensity to the geology of the lands it passes over.

Hurricanes alter every ecosystem they pass through on both land and sea. And now that Irma and Harvey have spent their fury, scientists are returning to these areas to take stock of the damage. “With extreme events like this, we need to understand what’s happened, we need to learn from it, and hopefully that will help us when we face future scenarios to be more resilient,” says Bryan Brooks, director of the Environmental Health Science program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.