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Bill Maxwell

Tropical ill winds blow some good

Since Tropical Storm Fay did not leave us in the Tampa Bay area cleaning up debris, repairing roofs, wading through water, crowding the interstate or trying to contact our insurance agents, I thought this would be a dandy time to discuss a topic most of us, including many old Florida natives, rarely think about: the benefits of hurricanes.

Yes, despite their obvious destructiveness, hurricanes are highly beneficial — benefits that never get big play in the news. In a word, the hurricane is also "good."

The most essential benefit of a hurricane is water production. Many regions in the tropics and subtropics, such as Florida, receive a large amount of their yearly rainfall from hurricanes and tropical storms such as Fay.

Consider Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest freshwater lake wholly in the United States. It always benefits from hurricanes. Without hurricane rainfall, the lake might have been destroyed years ago by the negative impact of agricultural practices, such as draining water for irrigation, dairy farming, cattle ranching and the production of sugarcane, citrus, sod and winter vegetables.

Regarding Everglades National Park, many scientists believe that hurricanes do more good than harm. The storms' water and winds act as a "flushing-out mechanism" in zones where sediment has built up on the bottom of waterways. Ample evidence shows that hurricane winds help destroy invasive plants in the park.

Without doubt, slow-moving hurricanes tend to bring flooding to human communities near the Everglades. But before we curse, however, we should remember that hurricanes do not create the conditions that cause flooding. People create the conditions, and these conditions, ironically, prevent hurricanes from doing their job effectively.

Throughout tropical and subtropical regions, most hurricanes break droughts and replenish lakes and reservoirs. And tens of thousands of Floridians have counted their blessings over the years because hurricanes bring relief from the threats of wildfires.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to be in the audience when Orrin H. Pilkey, a professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, spoke on the vital benefits of hurricanes to barrier islands.

"The big changes that occur in barriers islands often occur during hurricanes," he said. "Barrier islands need hurricanes for their survival, especially at times of rising sea levels. It's during hurricanes that islands get higher and wider. From a purely natural standpoint, hurricanes are a blessing for islands, even though they're a curse for people who live there."

Pilkey, author of the book, A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands, sees evidence that even as a hurricane's winds and surges are eroding some parts of an island's shoreline, those same winds and waves are redistributing precious sand elsewhere. If islands did not get the periodic battering of water and wind, they would disappear over time.

The simple fact is that hurricanes warn people that they have no business living on barrier islands.

Those who dive off Florida's coasts marvel at the beauty of our coral reefs. Recent research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the state's corals need hurricanes as a mitigating force to remain healthy, especially to fight off "bleaching" by warm waters.

"While it seems like an unlikely phenomenon at first," according to the report, "hurricanes are able to bring cooler waters to the surface, closer to where many corals reside and counter the now worldwide bleaching problem that may be a sign of global warming. … The area affected by hurricane cooling is much larger than the narrow bands where damage actually occurs to reefs.

"Clearly, hurricane cooling isn't expected to completely negate the effects of climate change on coral reefs, but a well-timed hurricane … has the potential to mitigate the negative ecological consequences associated with severe temperature disturbances."

As destructive as Katrina and Rita were to the people of Louisiana, the two hurricanes helped the state's vanishing coastal wetlands, the nation's largest wetlands system, by delivering silt and other inorganic sediment required to keep the system healthy and sustainable.

According to the National Academy of Engineering, Louisiana's coastal wetlands are vital, providing 1-billion pounds of seafood and a quarter of the nation's oil and gas annually. Engineers also believe the wetlands protect inland communities by buffering them against storm surges.

So here we are again, coping with another hurricane season. And the experts do not know where Fay is going or what it will do. But whatever the storm does, it's all part of the rhythm of nature, which is good.

Tropical ill winds blow some good 08/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 11:57am]
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