How Do Hurricanes Impact Estuaries?

Satellite image of a hurricane east of Florida

Hurricanes and large storm events can bring extreme change and devastation to coastal habitats, like estuaries. Although damage varies greatly depending on the characteristics of the storm, below are some common ways estuaries are impacted:

Estuary - A partly enclosed coastal body of water in which river water is mixed with seawater.

Truck driving on a flooded roadway during a storm

More Water

Hurricanes bring a lot of rain to areas that aren't necessarily used to dealing with that much extra water. For example, during Hurricane Irma, 19 billion gallons of water flowed through Peace River basin in just one day. Because of the way our cities are designed, the first place this stormwater will go is down to the nearest body of water. This means our bays and estuaries receive a large pulse of polluted freshwater.

Florida Wetland

Habitat Loss

Hurricane force winds, flooding, and collision with debris can destroy sensitive estuary habitats like wetlands, beaches, and salt marshes. This loss can be detrimental to the species that rely on those places for food or shelter.

Although estuaries are susceptible to devastating, long term storm effects, the dynamic nature of these systems does make them a little bit more resilient than many human systems. Because estuaries are places where saltwater and freshwater mixthe plants and animals in these systems have to tolerate different levels of salinity and nutrients. This tolerance helps species bounce back after hurricanes and storms. In addition, how quickly an estuary cycles water through its system also lends itself to a faster recovery. For example, research shows that right after a major storm, decreased salinity and increased pollution levels from excess stormwater will be very pronounced, but often dissipate within days to monthsThis means that fish, manatees, and other wildlife are often able to survive by moving not too far from their normal habitats

Nevertheless, it is important to understand the range of challenges estuaries face during natural eventsmany of which are exacerbated by human operations. The more we can reduce our impact on estuaries, the better chance they have of recovering naturally.