Do Hurricanes Have an Environmental Upside?

Despite their fearsome destructiveness, when it comes to climate change hurricanes might have a benefit as well.

Photo: A satellite view shows Hurricane Sandy approach the East Coast in 2012. Credit: NASA There's plenty of reason to fear hurricanes. The tropical cyclones typically kill nearly 50 people in the United States each year, and five worst ones over the past decade cumulatively caused $250 billion in property damage.

But for all of their scary destructiveness, hurricanes have a surprising upside when it comes to climate change.

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A study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Biogeosciences reveals that increased photosynthesis and growth in forests, which is made possible by hurricanes in the southeastern United States, enables those wooded areas to capture and store gigantic amounts of carbon. The quantity amounts to hundreds of times the carbon emitted each year by the nation's cars and trucks.

"Our results show that, while hurricanes can cause flooding and destroy city infrastructure, there are two sides to the story," said Ana Barros, the James L. Meriam professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, and the senior researcher in the study. "The other side is that hurricanes recharge the aquifers and have an enormous impact on photosynthesis and taking up carbon from the atmosphere."

Lauren Lowman, a doctoral student in Barros' laboratory who was the study's lead author, used a hydrological computer model to simulate the ecological impacts of hurricanes from 2004 to 2007. The earlier years of that time period had a high number of tropical cyclone landfall events, while the latter years experienced relatively few.

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By comparing the various years to simulations of a year without tropical cyclone events, Lowman was able to calculate the tropical cyclones' effect on photosynthesis and carbon uptake in forests in the southeastern United States.

Previous research by Barros has shown that hurricanes have another beneficial effect. They're vital to the southeast's water supply and can help mitigate droughts.

In an interview with Charlotte public radio station WFAE, Barros did attach a caveat to her research. Whatever positive effects we realize from hurricanes would be diminished if forests in the southeast are cut down. Deforestation also would magnify the risk of flooding, she said.

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