Hurricane Sandy’s Impact on Fish and Wildlife

Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the East Coast this week and due to its unusual West-turning track, it came ashore midway in the eastern “Megalopolis” with its 65 million people.  Virginia and Maryland were drenched and pummeled and New York and New Jersey were flooded and smashed.  Human impact is the main concern for so many but, what  happens to fish and wildlife during such major storms? After Hurricane Irene devastated the east coast in August of 2011, we wrote a synopsis of the ways species are affected by major storms coming ashore and some things you can do to help them. Here is an updated “Sandy” version of that blog post.

Scattered to the Winds

Seagoing Northern Gannet: U.S. FWS
The powerful winds from Sandy have blown many sea birds inland and this will cause them to end up in unusual places sometimes hundreds of miles away from their home habitat.  Species of birds such as gannets, gulls and petrels are often picked up by hurricane-force winds and are pushed far distances with little ability to resist.  In 2010, a North Carolina brown pelican was found on the roof of a night club in Halifax, Nova Scotia after a major storm. With Sandy, most of the Fall migration is over for the year but there are still some birds such as scoters and cormorants making their way to warmer waters and weather.  And, sometimes younger or weaker birds become separated from their flock and many can take days and weeks to return home.

Sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed in hurricanes.  Songbirds and smaller woodland birds, by contrast, have less difficulty. They are specially adapted to hold on, lay low and ride things out. In very strong winds, their toes automatically tighten around their perch. This holds them in place during high winds or when they sleep.  Woodpeckers and other cavity nesters will, barring the destruction of the tree itself, ride out storms in tree holes.  Shorebirds, such as sandpipers, often move to inland areas. In a unique effect of cyclonic hurricanes, the eye of the storm with its fast-moving walls of intense wind can form a massive “bird cage” holding birds inside the eye until the storm dissipates.  It is often the eye of the storm that displaces birds, more than its strong winds.  Sandy’s eye was less well-defined when compared to other hurricanes.

Birds are not the only species affected by the winds.  Sea mammals can be harmed too.  While many can seek shelter in open water or in near shore shelter, some dolphins and manatees have actually been blown ashore during major storms.

Flattened Forests

The “tree toll” of Sandy has not yet been tallied but in 1992, Hurricane Andrew generated incredible wind velocities onshore and knocked down as many as 80 percent of the trees on several coastal Louisiana basins, such as the Atchafalaya. Tree loss during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused even more extensive damage. Loss of coastal forests and trees can be devastating to dependent wildlife species and migratory species. Many wildlife species have very specialized niches in these forests, and specific foods can disappear too. High winds will often strip fruits, seeds and berries from bushes and trees.

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Dune and Beach Loss

Sandy has clearly been tough on the Midatlantic’s sand shoreline. Storm surges, wave action, and winds cause beach and dune erosion and that can severely affect wildlife species. Many wildlife species live in ecological niches in the sandy areas and dunes of coastal barrier islands.  In some cases the storm can cause a beach area to fully disappear.  Sea turtle nests, for example, are dug right in to the beach and can be washed out, or a water surge, called a “wash over” can submerge these nests or nearby tern and plover nesting areas.

Saltwater in Freshwater Areas

The sustained and powerful winds of a hurricane will cause salty ocean water to pile up and surge onshore.  Sandy pushed water into lower Manhattan and that has gathered most of the headlines but coastal marshes and bays can litterally be poisened by too much salt.  These “storm surges” can be huge. Hurricane Irene’s surges, in 2011, brought water levels that were as much as 8 feet above normal high tide and Sandy’s peaked between 10 and 13 feet.  Katrina, in 2005, pushed a 30 foot high surge onto the coast.  In addition to the physical damage this causes, the salt contained in sea water dramatically shifts the delicate balance of freshwater and brackish wetland areas such as in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast.  Creatures and vegetation that are less salt-tolerant will be harmed and many will not survive the influx of sea water. Marsh grasses, crabs, minnows, fish hatchlings, insects, and myriad creatures of freshwater and estuarine environments are harmed by a surge. The salt water intrusion in these some of these areas does not drain off very quickly and can even harm or kill off bottomland forests and other coastal trees.

Massive Flooding of Rivers, Bays and Wetlands

The reverse is true too.  The heavy rains generated by hurricanes will dump water in coastal area river basins (called watersheds) and this, in turn, can send vast amounts of fresh water surging downstream into coastal bays and estuaries.  This upsets the delicate and finely tuned freshwater/salt water balance that can be so vital for the health of these ecosystems.  In 1972, Hurricane Agnes sent such massive amounts of freshwater into the Chesapeake Bay.  A similar thing is happening with water from Sandy’s eight to 10 inches of rainfall.  The normally brackish (partially salty) water of the Bay was fresh for months following Agnes placing great pressure on the species living there.

Dark, Muddy Water

Heavy rainfall in upstream areas also washes soil, sediment and many pollutants into coastal and marine environments.  After Hurricane Agnes, the turbidly or cloudiness of the water became so severe in the Chesapeake Bay that the native grasses growing on the bottom of Bay died off in huge quantities.  These grasses provided critical habitat from crabs, fish spawning and many species.  It took the Bay years to recover. Similarly, sediment can wash over coral reefs, blocking needed sunlight and even causing algae to grow.

Violent Waters Everywhere

Hurricane Irene, like other hurricanes, generated massive waves and violent action on the surface.  When hurricane Andrew hit Louisiana the government estimated that more than 9 million fish were killed offshore.  Similarly an assessment of the effect of that same storm on the Everglades Basin in Florida showed that 182 million fish were killed.  Hurricane Katrina also had a huge effect on dolphin species.  Many dolphins were hurt during the storm and were rescued and underwent rehabilitation.

Climate Change

The prognosis for wildlife surviving hurricanes can be hard to assess. There are many success stories and also accounts of major devastation. The question remains, however, about whether wild creatures will. like humans, be experiencing more catastrophic hurricanes in the future. Amanda Staudt, NWF’s climate scientist, posted a piece at Wildlife Promise a couple of days ago that looks at how continued warming through climate change may be fueling major hurricanes and may have been a factor with Sandy.

What Can You Do?

The forces of hurricanes, such as Sandy, are so immense that they deserve tremendous respect.  So the first thing you can do is to stay safe yourself. Heed public safety warnings, prepare your property by collecting and storing lose items outside, be prepared for power outages and use common sense. Following a storm, birders and wildlife enthusiasts can help by keeping their eyes peeled for unusual or rare species that turn up. It is useful for wildlife agencies to hear about rare appearances.  Wildlife rescue organizations should be contacted if someone sees a creature that was injured in a storm. It always recommended to avoid trying to handle and injured animal on your own unless you have had specific training.  If you usually feed birds at your home, the post storm calm is a good time to fill up those feeders. Your pals will probably be hungry and tired after waiting out the storm.

In addition, be wildlife friendly during this election and demand action on climate change. Urge our candidates to tell us their plans to address climate change now.