by Whit Gibbons

September 26, 2004

This year's hurricanes and associated tornados have left many people reeling with personal losses of property, pets, and even lives. Homes, highways, and entire communities have been destroyed. Clearly, hurricanes can be devastating from a human perspective. But how do they affect our native wildlife?

The answer is simple. The overall impact of hurricanes or other natural disasters, such as earthquakes or forest fires, on natural ecosystems and wildlife communities is minimal, compared to the way people can be affected. We do not perceive wildlife as suffering the devastating effects from hurricanes like people do as we measure impacts differently for wild animals than we do for people. With people, and even with pets, we empathize with each individual who suffers. We see dozens of examples on news channels of someone stranded atop a car floating down a swollen river, people examining the remains of their former home, or police searching for a missing person. With wild animals, we may hear of a few stories of the plight of individual animals, but for the most part we are concerned with how the whole population fared. Few people care about the fate of a single mockingbird as long as plenty are around to sing in the spring. And a hurricane will not change that as long as healthy populations of mockingbirds are already present.

On another scale, few animals have "personal property" that can be lost in a hurricane. All a possum or lizard has to do is survive. One group of animals that do have structural assets are birds with nests. But most hurricanes occur in late summer and fall, a time when relatively few birds have nests in trees that can be blown down. Hurricane season is stated as being officially from June through November, but only about 10% occur before August, and more than half occur in September and October. In keeping with nature not being bound by man-made rules, three officially designated hurricanes have occurred outside the declared season, two in May and one in December.

Among other property losses by wildlife, beavers probably lose dams due to powerful flooding associated with hurricanes. But in keeping with being beavers, they simply set about repairing the damage as soon as the water level declines, with little overall effect on their lives. Gopher tortoises, the big turtles of the Southeast, that make their homes in deep burrows they dig into sandy areas can have flooding damage from a hurricane. But their homes become livable again as the water subsides, and some tortoises may actually move to another burrow.

Despite the timing of hurricanes on a seasonal or annual basis, the ancestors of all our native wildlife evolved to deal with them. On a few trips over the years to coastal areas to see incoming hurricanes, I have observed some of the approaches used by native plants and wild animals to weather the storms. Palm trees with their type B personalities will bend like fishing poles, becoming parallel with the ground against awesome winds. Oak trees rely on brute strength that works for moderately high winds, but even the biggest cannot persist against category four or five hurricanes.

During Hurricane David many years ago, Steve Bennett, Garfield Keaton, and I were the lone inhabitants of Kiawah Island when the storm came ashore with category one winds, which were enough to get our attention. We noticed that the underbrush of bushes was alive with shorebirds that hunkered down beneath them. Occasionally, one would try to fly, reach a height of four feet, and immediately disappear inland at 75 miles an hour. A few individual birds no doubt perished, but the long-term damage to native shorebird bird populations was minimal.

Hurricanes do not significantly affect wildlife, and clearly no type of wildlife has any effect on hurricanes. But do people have an effect on hurricanes? The cause or even extent of climate change, aka global warming, purportedly being brought about by carbon dioxide emissions emanating from industrial countries like the United States, remains equivocal. But one thing for sure is that a warmer ocean off the coast of Africa will create a spawning ground for more powerful hurricanes than will a cooler ocean. It's called cause and effect.

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