Hurricanes and Wildlife

Hurricane Sandy Wachapreague Marina Virginia Ducks

Hurricanes are part of the natural environment to which wildlife have adapted: species and habitats typically can rebound quickly after a storm passes through, and some species even flourish in the storm aftermath. However, increasingly intense storms will likely make it more difficult for regions and wildlife to bounce back.

Flooded Ecosystems

The effects of Hurricane Agnes on the Chesapeake Bay illustrate how major flooding can devastate ecosystems. The June 1972 storm sent an enormous amount of freshwater into the bay, leading to a dramatic reduction in salinity that affected many marine fisheries for years afterward.

Furthermore, the 30 million tons of sediment the hurricane washed into the bay—equivalent to about seven years of deposition during normal flows—increased nutrients to unhealthy levels, blocked out sunlight due to suspended particles, and buried seagrass beds that are crucial habitat for migratory waterfowl and juvenile fish.

High Wind and Damaged Forests

Strong hurricane winds can wreak havoc on broad expanses of forests, causing downed trees, snapped trunks and limbs, and stripped leaves. For example, about 5 million acres of forest across Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Damaged forests increase the risk of wildfire, insect infestation, and the establishment of invasive species. Furthermore, as all the dead trees decompose, they release substantial carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

Pushing Endangered Species Over the Edge

Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Especially at risk are those species already vulnerable because of low population or reliance on isolated or limited habitats. A large storm that devastates broad expanses of ecosystem can push such species over the brink.

The red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Marion National Forest almost were an example of this when Hurricane Hugo hit the area in September 1989. About 60 percent of the 500 groups of birds perished and 87 percent of the trees containing cavities where they live were destroyed.

Fortunately, other populations were not in the path of Hurricane Hugo and immediate action by the U.S. Forest Service to construct artificial cavities helped the birds recover.

Wildlife That "Win" After a Hurricane:

  • Orchids - They use the strong winds to spread their seeds.
  • Gopher frogs and spadefoot toads - They use the heavy rainfall to breed.
  • Raccoons - Since they are scavengers, they find new food sources in the turmoil after a hurricane.
  • Black bears and ground birds - They can benefit from increased ground shelter created by downed trees and brush.

Wildlife that "Lose":

  • Wildlife refuges - Buildings and habitat reconstruction efforts can take a beating from hurricanes.
  • Endangered species - Any animal that is on the brink of extinction due to human causes can go over the brink when a hurricane strikes their habitat.
  • Migrating birds - Birds are blown off course to new habitats. Sometimes younger or weaker birds are separated from their flock. Some take weeks to return assuming they can find a food source in their new habitat.
  • Coral reefs - Rainfall washes sediment and pollutants on to coral reefs, blocking out sunlight and causing algae to grow.
  • Squirrels - Animal rescuers get a big influx of baby squirrels tossed from their nests because squirrels are often at their most vulnerable during hurricane season. Also squirrels' food source of nuts can be wiped out.
  • Sea turtles - Their nests can be washed out to sea from beaches, and volunteers must scramble to save hatchlings before that happens.
  • Fish - Electrical lines falling into water can electrocute fish. Heavy rainfall can cause sudden drops of oxygen in water. Flooding can wash sediment or larger items into streams, destroying habitat.
  • Scrub jays - They depend on leafy trees to hide from predators and strong winds defoliate trees.
  • Beach mice - Their dune habitats are destroyed.
  • Deer - At first the deer can find food that has been blown down by the winds, but this rots and in some cases, there is not enough food left for later in the season.
  • Red-cockaded woodpeckers - Since they need such specific nesting sites, the loss of any nest cavity trees can have a big impact.
  • Mussels and oysters - Since they are immobile, they cannot move away from a hurricane and are sometimes blown to habitats where they cannot survive.
  • Marine mammals - While many can seek shelter in open water or in nearshore shelter, some dolphins and manatees have been blown ashore.

Wildlife that Sometimes Wins, Sometimes Loses:

  • Burrowing owls - They can use their burrows to protect themselves, but sometimes the burrows get blocked by debris so they cannot exit, or the burrows are flooded by heavy rains.
  • Native plants - Many native plants are adapted better to hurricanes than non-native plants. Native plants can get a boost when non-natives are damaged by hurricanes, but they can also suffer if the seeds of non-native plants are spread by hurricane winds over new areas.
  • Snakes - Some can burrow and get through the hurricane easily. Other times, their burrows become flooded, or pet non-native snakes get released during the storm and compete for food.

Read more about how climate change is impacting hurricanes >>

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