DO FLOODS AND TORNADOS AFFECT WILDLIFE?
May 8, 2011
of fury that passed through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in late April left thousands
of people reeling with personal losses of property, pets, and even lives.
The terrifying tornado destroyed homes, businesses, and entire communities.
A different environmental tragedy struck the Midwest as record-breaking
floods breached levees of the country's mightiest rivers. Floods and tornados
can be devastating from a human perspective, and people must be our first
and foremost concern. But some have asked, how do such natural disasters
affect native wildlife?
is simple. The overall impact on natural ecosystems and wildlife communities
is minimal in the long run. Although the local impacts of two-story high
flooding or 200-mph winds are evident immediately, all species native
to an area had ancestors that were able to weather similar extremes of
wind and water. With us today are the species that have persisted because
former generations faced similar weather phenomena and survived.
temporarily gone from wind-ravaged or flooded areas, birds and other animals
will soon return. Native trees that have disappeared will soon be replaced
by seedlings of the same species. Although of small consolation to a homeless
family or the owner of lost or damaged property, no native species of
plant or animal will be lost because of tornados or floods.
We do not
perceive wildlife as suffering the devastating effects from floods and
tornados in the same way as people because we measure impacts differently
for wild animals than we do for ourselves. With people, and even with
our pets, we empathize with each individual who suffers. We have all seen
photos or videos of someone stranded atop a house in the floodplain of
a swollen river, people examining a pile of wood, metal, and paper that
was once their home, or police searching for a missing person beneath
a collapsed building. Even the rescue of a pet can make national news.
And most people relate personally and with empathy to each incident.
with wild animals we hear a few stories of the plight of individuals,
but for the most part we focus on how a population or the species itself
fared. Wrens and robins unquestionably were killed or displaced from many
local communities in Alabama by tornados. But no species of bird was irreparably
impaired. Other individuals of each species will eventually return, emigrating
from surrounding unaffected areas.
scale, few animals have "personal property" that can be lost
in a tornado or flood. All a coon or turtle has to do is survive. Their
home is where they choose to be at any particular moment. One group of
animals with structural assets are birds with nests, and indeed this spring's
natural disasters have eliminated many a family of bird. But birds are
resilient. In the long run, more nests will be built and more eggs will
be laid, eventually even in what are now destroyed habitats. Among other
property losses by wildlife, beavers lose dams and lodges due to powerful
flooding. But in the nature of beavers, they simply set about repairing
the damage as soon as water levels decline, and their life goes on.
the worst weather-related natural disasters the world can offer--floods
and tornados, as well as hurricanes, droughts, and forest fires--the ancestors
of all our native wildlife evolved to deal with them. None of these phenomena
ultimately affect healthy populations of wildlife. And of course no wildlife
affect the weather.
are different. Personal lives can be permanently altered by the vagaries
of weather. And we are different in another way in that we influence some
natural disasters. Damage from some floods can be attributed to the configuration
and structural integrity of levees, dikes. and dams. We are responsible
for some out-of-control forest fires because we have suppressed natural
burning patterns. Are we also responsible for dramatic climate changes
brought about by carbon dioxide emissions emanating from industrial countries
like ours? The wildlife doesn't care, but should we?
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