A Fresh Start: Hurricanes, Forest Fires, and Renewal Through Disaster


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Is there some ecological benefit to tropical storms? Image by mattnoit at Stock Exchange.

As Hurricane Irene blasts her way through the Bahamas toward North Carolina, and people get ready for the storm season, it’s tempting to think of hurricanes as all bad.

Hurricane Damage

Let’s be frank. Hurricanes do an amazing amount of damage to ecosystems. At least, they cause what humans perceive to be damage. More about this in a minute. In estuaries, hurricanes mix salt and fresh water, making it hard for species adapted to one or the other to survive. They change the bottom of the estuary as well, making it muddy and creating challenging conditions for animals from shellfish to fish. Fragile coastal wetlands bear the brunt of the hurricane’s force. Reefs are destroyed. Mangroves and other wetland areas that shelter birds and harbor baby fish are rendered unrecognizable by the storm’s power.

But are hurricanes all bad? Can these storm clouds have a silver lining?

Benefits of Natural Disasters: Forest Fires

Forest fires cleanse the ecosystem of dead wood. Image by edudflog at Stock Exchange.

Look for a moment to another type of disaster, this one very much land-based: the forest fire. People are not overly fond of forest fires. They destroy homes. They destroy livelihoods, whether those livelihoods are in the forest industry or in an industrial complex that is burned by the fire. For years, we learned from Smokey the Bear to help prevent forest fires, and his image is still likely burned into our respective brains. But now people plan forest fires. Yes, they create prescribed burns.

Often, this is to clear out the dead wood before an unplanned Smokey-Bear style fire comes to visit. However, these prescribed burns can also be good for the ecosystem. Certain trees, such as the jack pine, actually rely on the heat of a fire to spread their seeds. Small plants that do not thrive in dense, mature forests spring to life after the fire passes through. A forest in recovery is part of a diverse landscape that hosts new plants, mature trees, and the animals that rely on each type of forested area.

In forestry, we’ve started to think about forest fires as a natural part of the ecosystem. They’ve taken place forever, and they will continue to take place even when people no longer forget to put their campfires out. They are devastating, yes. However, these fires also provide an opportunity for a new ecological beginning. We can look at the charred remains of the trees, or we can look at the new growth emerging from them. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Hurricanes: Winds of Change

Now, we can’t prescribe hurricanes. We can’t plan for them to take place in areas where there are very few people. We don’t have the luxury of organization behind them, and so we fear these powerful storms, and rightly so. They hurt people and their homes, and they change ecosystems. However, even though hurricanes can cause profound changes to ecosystems, it is also possible to see these changes as a new beginning.

Hurricanes move warmth and water. They’re powered by warm tropical air, which they redistribute to other, cooler parts of the globe. Thirsty deserts and landlocked areas benefit from the water that hurricanes bring. They’re also nature’s cleanse. Need to flush out toxic substances from a small water body? Just call up a hurricane. All right, we can’t do that yet, but we can thank hurricanes for renewing the water quality in small bodies of water every year.

Sandy beaches have the look of love for the piping plover. Image by abcdz2000 at Stock Exchange.

For some animals and plants, the hurricane is vital. It can move animals to new places, expanding their range. Many shorebirds cannot nest in areas that have too much seaside vegetation. What removes this vegetation? Hurricanes do an awfully good job. So even as you’re battening down the hatches, the piping plover is shouting hurrah.

And yes, even as the hurricanes are plowing through islands and reefs, they’re also leaving sand behind, building up different parts of the islands. If the reefs are healthy, the pieces that have broken apart may even start new colonies.

Ecosystem Resiliency

Just as humans are resilient, ecosystems are as well. Just as humans will change and adapt to the new circumstances of their lives, ecosystems will also change, sometimes for the better. As the hurricanes approach, know that there will be change. However, in ecological terms, change does not have a value judgement. It’s not good or bad, it is just the way that ecosystems are. So, as Hurricane Irene and her friends move closer, think about that silver lining – and keep yourself safe this storm season.

Carlson, Paul. 2003. Divine Wind? Hurricane is Punishing But Creates Some Benefits. The Washington Post. Accessed August 25. 2011.
Herring, David. 1999. Evolving in the Presence of Fire. NASA Earth Observatory. Accessed August 25, 2011.

NASA. Tropical Twisters. Mission: Science. Accessed August 25, 2011.

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