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University scientists research ecological impacts of hurricanes

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Two University of Louisiana at Lafayette researchers are among an international team of scientists whose study of the impacts of hurricanes has provided insight into ways coastal ecosystems might respond to future storms. 

The researchers’ findings were recently published in “Science Advances,” an academic journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. UL Lafayette’s Dr. Beth Stauffer, an associate professor of biology, and Dr. Kelly Robinson, an assistant professor of biology, co-authored the study. It was led by Dr. Christopher Patrick of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The team used pre- and post-storm monitoring surveys to examine patterns of ecosystem resistance and resilience from 26 storms. The storms that were researched made landfall in the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere between 1985 and 2018.

“Most hurricane-related research is done on a single-storm, single-system basis. So studies like this one are especially powerful in bringing together the results from that diverse research and finding more general rules for how ecosystems respond to hurricanes,” Stauffer said.

The researchers gauged storm characteristics and impacts based on factors such as total rainfall, maximum rainfall rate and wind speed. The study considered four types of ecosystems – freshwater, saltwater, wetland and terrestrial, or land-based, ecosystems.

The researchers documented post-storm changes related to the distribution and abundance of living things, including fishes, oysters, plants such as mangroves, and microbes. Changes to ecosystems’ biogeochemistry such as salinity and nitrogen levels and hydrography such as depth and shoreline position were also documented.

"Cross-ecosystem analyses help us understand the resilience and vulnerability of animals and plants that ultimately support recreational and commercial activities along our coasts. This study provides an important reference point against which we can measure the impacts on coastal ecosystems from future hurricanes, which are predicted to strengthen as oceans warm due to climate change," Robinson said.

As a whole, the research team includes 23 scientists from 11 states, Puerto Rico and Taiwan. Their work is part of the National Science Foundation’s Hurricane Ecosystem Response Synthesis, or HERS. Stauffer is co-principal investigator for the research coordination network.

The network will bring together research on how species traits such as reproductive potential, dispersal mode and distance, and physiological tolerance might explain patterns of resistance and resilience. It will also explore how an ecosystem’s long-term or recent environmental history might influence response to subsequent storms.

Learn more about the scientists’ recent research here.

Photo caption: Researchers, including UL Lafayette’s Dr. Beth Stauffer (foreground), deploy a “Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth” instrument from the Point Sur research vessel. The work was done as part of a National Science Foundation-funded research effort to study the effects of Hurricane Harvey on plankton communities and food webs. Submitted photo

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