The Value of Hurricanes

Hurricane Carla had a profound effect on me when I was a kid. It came barreling head-on into Galveston, the biggest one to hit that city since the 1900 storm that killed 6,000 people, and then went on down to the Corpus Christi area, where it did even more damage. At one point it was a Category 5 hurricane and it still has the record for the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S.

Weather prediction had improved a lot since the 1900 storm, so most people in the path of the storm did evacuate and many fewer folks died. (The conventional wisdom in meteorology in 1900 said a hurricane couldn’t hit Galveston.)

We lived about 40 miles northwest of Galveston, so we didn’t leave. The power went off with the first high wind (as it always did), we got a lot of rain, and the eye passed over our house, but the storm had mellowed some by that point and we didn’t suffer any damage.

But a few miles to our east there was widespread destruction. My father was out in it during the story, a reporter traveling with National Guard troops, covering the damage. Our favorite restaurant in Kemah was reduced to a concrete slab. And the big cattle pastures we drove past to get to that restaurant were under ten feet of water. (That’s the location where the Johnson Space Center is today, by the way.)

It was a dramatic lesson in the power of nature.

If you’d asked me back then if we should be trying to get rid of hurricanes, I’d have answered in the affirmative. Obviously we would want to live on a planet that didn’t suffer such disruptions.

But this week I read on Science Daily that hurricanes increase photosynthesis and forest growth in the Southeastern U.S., which in turn allows those areas to absorb hundreds of times more carbon that vehicles spew out in the U.S. in a year. They’re also important to the area’s water supply and mitigate drought.

This is based on research done by Ana Barros, the James L. Meriam Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University, and one of her doctoral students, Lauren Lowman. Their study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Biogeosciences.

Hurricanes turn out to be useful, even valuable. It’s a good thing we managed to figure that out before we started trying to stop or control hurricanes. What we need to do is construct buildings that can better handle the water and wind and discourage people from living in areas that are high risk.

Earth’s history is replete with people doing things to stop natural processes that they find inconvenient, and then figuring out that those solutions cause worse problem. Filling in wetlands, for example. Or not allowing the minor fires in forests that help clear the area and improve growth. Not to mention building on barrier islands and ocean cliffs.

This is one reason why most climate scientists object to the geoengineering schemes some folks are dreaming up to deal with climate change. Some of those changes might seem like a great idea, until we find out that they’re changing something else that’s necessary for life on this planet.

We’re a long way from knowing everything we need to know about Earth and what is necessary not just for human comfort, but for life of all kinds to continue and thrive here.

For example, another study reported by Science Daily predicts that there are almost a trillion species on Earth, but reports we’ve only identified one-thousandth of 1 percent of them.  This study, by Jay T. Lennon, associate professor of biology at Indiana University, and Kenneth J. Locey, a post-doc there, was based on reviewing microbial, plant, and animal community data from government, academic, and citizen science sources.

Edward O. Wilson discusses this lack of species knowledge as well in Half-Earth. It’s not just that biologists want to know about all those species – though I’m sure they do – it’s that we really don’t know how many of them are absolutely crucial to Earth.

Right now we’re figuring out that a lot of the bacteria in our gut are necessary for human health, just as an example. Antibiotics are wonderful drugs and have saved humans from some nasty diseases, but unfortunately they wipe out the good with the bad, which can lead to other kinds of problems.

The more we learn about how things work, the more we should realize that we need to proceed with great care in dealing with our planet. Given climate change, we don’t have much margin for error these days.



The Value of Hurricanes — 2 Comments

  1. I had no idea about the positive effects of hurricanes, though I’m not surprised to hear it. It’s so much better when we figure out how to live with natural phenomena than when we try to eliminate them. Wonderful post.