Hurricanes Benefit Mangroves in Florida’s Everglades

Florida's coastal mangrove forests cover 700 square miles. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Image: USFWS

Hurricanes can bring sheer destruction to coastal communities like causing elevated sea level, known as storm surge, extensive shoreline erosion, destruction to reefs, and other geologic effects leading to the loss of property and life. However, a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has revealed that hurricanes may actually be beneficial for mangroves in places like the Everglades. 

Edward Castañeda-Moya, one of the study’s authors, explained that “hurricanes are depositing mud and sediment in mangroves, and we found out this provides natural fertilization that helps the mangroves.”

The Study: Researchers from Florida International University, Louisiana State and the College of William & Mary measured soil levels and phosphorus, a major nutrient for mangroves following hurricanes that raked Southwest Florida — Wilma in 2005 and Irma in 2017. They found that hurricanes have a positive effect and were able to help mangroves increase their soil elevation, facilitate their rapid recovery and help their young branch out and find new homes. 

The authors of the study explained that wind damage to mangroves in Florida was severe during Wilma and Irma, snapping branches or trunks and uprooting trees but they were able to fully recover afterward.

What Does This Mean: As Florida Impact explained, this research is a welcome impact from an otherwise destructive force of nature as mangrove forests do plenty of good for people:

  • They blunt the impact of hurricanes.
  • They absorb damaging winds and prevent floodwaters from moving farther inland.
  • They bear the brunt of the wind and storm surge, so people living in developed areas don’t have to.

BUT, as Betty Staugler, a research biologist with Florida Sea Grant, explained not all hurricanes may have the same effect. In a statement to United Press International that she’s “seen storms in other areas where mangroves take much longer to recover if they do at all.” She is based in Charlotte Harbor, an area that has mangroves but is some 70 miles north of the Everglades mangrove forests.

Staugler noted that hurricane-roiled waters also are viewed as a source of phosphorus that feeds toxic red tide algae blooms.

Why This Matters: Mangroves are an important natural barrier against violent storm surges and floods. Keeping them healthy is a crucial nature-based solution against the effects of climate change yet throughout the world they’re being cleared to reclaim land for agriculture, industrial development and infrastructure projects. Nature can be resilient, as this study suggests, but it doesn’t mean that we’ll have mangroves into perpetuity unless we take action.

Go Deeper: We’ve written a lot about the need to protect 30% of our planet for nature by 2030 and now 23 former foreign ministers (including Madeleine Albright) have called on current world leaders to do their part to achieve 30 by 30.

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