Effects of Hurricane Irene on Wildlife

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During late August, 2011, Hurricane Irene blasted the Atlantic Coast of North America, with tropical storm to hurricane force winds, heavy rainfall, tornadoes, flooding, erosion and other storm damage.

Throughout the region, the storm effected wildlife. Impacts on wildlife include direct casualties from winds and flooding, habitat loss, damaged food supplies, and other occurrences.

Although floods do cause some deaths, in most areas, birds, mammals and other ground dwelling animals take shelter or move out of low lying areas.

Among the hardest hit wildlife by Hurricane Irene were freshwater trout in the smaller brooks and streams of New England. After flood waters receded, residents reported finding stranded trout in yards, basements and other locations.

Along the coast, sea life washed ashore in some areas. Whelks, starfish, sand dollars, crabs and other benthic life forms are sometimes stranded along coastlines during hurricanes.

In spite of the destruction that hurricanes bring, these powerful storms bring an array of benefits to wildlife.

Throughout much of the region, ponds, swamps, creeks and other impoundments were at low levels. The storm brought considerable rainfall, which replenished many of these low lying areas with water.

The infusion of so much fresh water into the environment provides a flushing action to rivers and creeks, pushing nutrients, silt and debris downstream.

As the initial rushing water passes and stream flows stabilize, higher water levels connect bodies of water. In some areas, wildlife that were previously isolated are now able move freely throughout estuaries.

After the storm subsides, beaches, marshes and other coastal areas are littered with food, which in turn attracts scavengers.

The replenishment of water to small ponds and marshes comes at a critical time for ducks, geese and other waterfowl that are about to begin migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.

Although large areas of habitat have been destroyed, new growth will appear during the following spring to provide important forage areas for wildlife.

According to Dr. Thomas Doyle, an ecologist at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center, “Biodiversity is highest under some moderate recurrence of hurricanes,” he says, “but it declines in the absence of hurricanes, or when they become too frequent and severe.”