If you have watched any television, turned on a radio, or walked past a newsstand in the last few days, you will have seen or heard about the current weather events taking place along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Ocean.
Hurricane Harvey was a massive, unexpected, force which has disrupted a huge area and hundred of thousands of people. Hurricane Irma has been just as destructive, if not more-so, and she is not done yet. Most consider these natural disturbances a catastrophe.
In terms of humans, I completely agree. Having lived in the Houston area, it is even harder to see the images and realize the scale, knowing that the images do not do it justice. I was there when Katrina hit New Orleans and many of those residents fled to Houston. Hearing their stories and seeing their struggles, literally face-to-face, did more than any news image could.
Hurricane Harvey and Irma are natural disturbances on a grand scale. Thankfully, most disturbance of nature are that so intense.
Scaling back a little, let us take a look at a “disaster” from a different view point.
Consider a week of spring rains across the Midwestern states. The rains have saturated the soil, thereby sending water flowing into local streams and rivers. The streams and rivers can only move so fast, yet the water keeps coming. Water levels rise, resulting in typical yearly flooding into fields, woods, yards, roadways, etc.
Eventually the rains end and the streams are able to carry the excess water into the rivers and down to the ocean.
What is left?
If you were to go look at the stream, you might notice a lack of sticks in the bed…you likely had to step over a line of them along the bank in order to get down to see the stream bed itself. Perhaps the tall tree, whose roots used to stick out into the stream, is now lying across the stream, branches dangling in the water.
Down in the field, you notice grasses matted down, covered with detritus and debris. Temporary rivulets left lines as the water receded, creating low areas in a once flat field.
Is this a catastrophe or a rejuvenation?
As this natural disturbance is a seasonal, regular occurrence, what might look like a catastrophe to the local ecosystem at first can actually turn out to be a much needed and depended upon rejuvenation.
Where the tree fell, more light is reaching the forest floor. In a year, this area will be covered with plants who need more light, rather than shade, to grow. Birds who like to nest and eat along the edges of forests increase in population, and end up eating more of the insects flying near the water.
In 5 years you will not even be able to see an opening in the forest canopy.
The sticks in the stream, which used to catch leaves and block flow are now out of the way. The water has been able to create a smoother bed and deeper pools. While the dangling limbs from the tree provide shade and protection, the cleaned out stream bed means there are also more crevices under rocks, more places to hide. The deeper pools are cooler than the shallower edges, helping regulate the stream’s temperature and aiding aquatic life who need cooler temperatures.
Was this natural disturbance a catastrophe or a change for rejuvenation?
While many in the news label occurrences like this a natural “disaster”, I think that is not always the case. Without disturbances, a system becomes too similar – population diversities decline, species who can not survive in those conditions die or become extinct, and the system as a whole may loses its ability to handle a disturbance when it does happen.
The idea that natural disasters are not always bad, or disasters, is what Seth Reice talked about in “The Silver Lining: the benefits of natural disasters“. I had picked up his book at a library book sale, the picture of a field/forest fire on the front having caught my attention. Yes, I was initially judging a book by its cover. 😉
What I found inside was a great explanation of what happens during a natural disturbance, how we as humans perceive the results, why these disturbances are actually needed, and the observable results of various “disasters” years later.
Even better was the flow of the book. It was not weighed down with technical terms, but written so even someone without an understanding of the science behind it could follow along easily. My background in biological sciences and ecology only aided in understanding further what he was talking about.
While everything he mentioned was not new to me, it was a great reminder that there is not always one way to view what is happening. We need to take headlines with a grain of salt. The new agencies are in business to sell papers or gain ratings, while telling a story; hence the use of catchy headlines. After all a headline saying “Forest Utterly Destroyed By Fire” is more likely sell a greater number of (non-academic) papers than “Forest Fire Allows Pine Trees To Reseed.”