Hurricane ecology damage

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Nov 30 10:37:10 MST 1999

NY Times, November 30, 1999

After the Storm, an Ecological Bomb


In September, the one-two punch of Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd dropped some
three feet of rain on the eastern third of North Carolina, turning the
region into a putrescent hell of polluted flood waters, decomposing
chickens and hogs, rotting farm fields and ruined neighborhoods.

Never before in the recorded history of the region, experts say, had there
been such a big and disastrous flood.

Now scientists fear the flood has also created an ecological time bomb that
could bring disaster of a different sort, and they fear for the
biologically rich waters that separate the famous Outer Banks from the
Carolina mainland.

This complex of sounds, bays and inlets comprises the second largest
estuary in the country, after the Chesapeake Bay, and is one of the
nation's most important incubators of marine life.

Rarely have ecologists confronted such a striking example of what can
happen when a first-order natural disturbance is combined with a
first-order disturbance of the natural world by humans. "I guarantee you
there have been floods like this in the past," said Dr. Robert S. Young, a
geologist at Western Carolina University, "but I can also say with the same
amount of assurance that there has never been a flood like this with the
potential for this much ecological impact. Never."

The main problem is that the September flood picked up huge amounts of
organic matter in the form of decomposing vegetation, topsoil, farm and
lawn fertilizer, raw sewage, hog waste from containment ponds maintained by
the state's corporate farms, even grass clippings.

This richly fertilized water surged directly into the estuary, turning its
water the color of strong tea or weak coffee.

The runoff is still coming, in fact, at considerably more than the ordinary

Once in Pamlico, Albemarle and Currituck sounds, the organic matter is
mostly trapped because the barrier islands of the Banks convert the sounds
into a single, nearly closed lagoon. The material sinks to the bottom of
this shallow water, and that is the root of scientists' fears.

When the water warms up again next spring and summer, they say, two things
are likely to happen.

First, the organic waste will provide nutrients for the production of
vastly larger amounts of algae called phytoplankton.

When they die, they will fall to the bottom and join the carpet of organic
matter washed there by the floods.

Second, multiplying aquatic bacteria will feed on both the dead algae and
the matter washed off the land. In the process they will use up tremendous
amounts of oxygen from the water.

If weather and water conditions are right -- or wrong -- great expanses of
the estuary could rapidly be drained of oxygen, killing multitudes of fish
and other creatures and drastically limiting habitat for surviving aquatic

That would be no small thing for a region that in large measure draws its
living from the water, and which serves as an incubator for marine
creatures that range far and wide...

(complete article at

Louis Proyect

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