All week reports from a water-logged Florida, Texas, and the Carribean have been pouring in. Torrential downpours and massive flooding have devastated communities as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma passed through. Many in the world watched in shock as the sea stormed the barriers, rushing through the streets of Miami to climb the lower levels of high-rises and tearing a path through the Carribean. Without discrimination, the maelstrom claimed humans, homes, and history for its own, leaving piles of debris as the only reminder of what formerly stood. Emergency services were called in to rescue evacuated families and their pets as their homes became victims of the flood.
Accounts of the next storm system, Tropical Storm Jose, have made their way to headlines and the East Coast of the US is bracing itself for its projected touchdown later this week.
It has been nearly three weeks since Harvey flooded 28,000 square miles of Texas, and almost a week since the Irma struck the Caribbean and Florida. As the flood waters recede, over 200 million cubic yards of debris have been revealed in Texas alone. The extent of damage from Irma, which is still rolling through the country as a smaller tropical storm, has yet to be determined. Today the death toll for Harvey and Irma stands somewhere around 125 people, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage has been reported thus far.
Unaccounted for in the post-storm figures are the wildlife populations that could not relocate to higher ground when flood waters were rising. Over the past three weeks, the World Animal Protection Charity has sent emergency teams to Texas and Florida to rescue and care for wildlife. Teams of professional rescuers and volunteers have spent countless hours locating and rehabilitating injured animals following the storms. While clean up efforts in affected areas are well underway, it will take months for teams of experts to understand the full scale impact on wildlife.
Hurricane Irma Leaves Manatees Stranded
Last Sunday, Hurricane Irma was still 100 miles away from Tampa when it sucked the water out of shallow Sarasota Bay, an ideal habitat for manatees. The Florida Wildlife Commission had received several calls about stranded manatees, also known as sea cows, when a passerby and two sheriffs noticed two manatees beached in the newly-dried bay. In a heroic effort to save the protected marine animals, the sheriffs rolled the 1000 pound manatees onto a sheet and dragged them over 100 yards to the sea.
When a Tree Falls
Trees provide a habitat for already vulnerable species. During a hurricane, high winds can uproot trees and displace the animal tenants living within. Many bird species that use trees as a convenient shelter have the ability to migrate to drier areas, and often times they are aware of a storm before it arrives. Ornithologists describe that most birds can sense even the slightest changes in barometric pressure, which makes them a kind of a living barometer. Once the message has been received that barometric pressure is low, they take flight and head for dryer areas. However, powerful winds can blow the migrating birds off of their course. At best, these birds can reroute themselves back to their homes once the storms have ended, but often they are injured or weakened and have been deprived of food so many do not survive. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma intersected the beginning of the annual fall migration, which according to ornithologists, guarantees some level of bird displacement.
In certain cases, birds do not have the opportunity to migrate away from the storm. Take the red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Marion National Forest for an example. When Hurricane Hugo hit the area in September 1989, approximately 60 percent of the 500 groups of birds perished when 87 percent of the trees containing cavities where they lived were destroyed. Thanks to extensive rehabilitation efforts, populations have been returned to their numbers in the years since Hugo slammed the state.
How Are Hurricanes Formed?
As deep layers of warm ocean waters stoke an emerging thunderstorm into a mature state, a hurricane is born. Sea surface temperature is one of five factors that influence the formation of tropical cyclones, defined as rapidly rotating storm systems categorized by low-pressure centers, the presence of thunderstorms, heavy rain, strong winds, and low-level atmospheric circulation. Specifically, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone occurring in the Atlantic and northeastern Pacific Oceans. The warm water temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico make it a notorious landing point for hurricanes. According to oceanographers, temperatures of the oceans in the Gulf of Mexico are the highest that they have ever been in recorded history and these spikes in temperature can account for some of the increase in hurricane potency. Warm water is only one of the ingredients needed to produce a full-fledged hurricane. Humidity, wind shear, and a generally unstable atmosphere are also required to help craft the “perfect storm.”
Ironically, the “perfect storm” is just that for certain plants and animals that survive its force. While hurricanes can be devastating to many wild animal populations, other animals manage to survive and thrive during and after the event. Orchids, gopher frogs, raccoons, and brown bears are among the animals that are generally positively impacted by a hurricane (so long as they survive). Orchids use intense winds to spread their seeds, frogs breed in heavy rainfall, raccoons scavenge for food, and bears use the fallen trees as shelter.
Sea turtles, marine life, small ground animals, livestock, and domestic pets can all fall victim to the destruction of habitats and the scarcity of food sources that are associated with hurricanes.
As another Tropical Storm Jose matures in the distance, rescue efforts are still underway for the countless animal victims of the latest natural disasters. While it’s too early to fully estimate impacts of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma on wildlife, it is important to recognize that recovery efforts will need to extend beyond far beyond human development. Locals in affected areas have begun reporting injured animals to their local officials and people around the world are making donations to support habitat conservation and protection efforts. You can help provide relief for human and wildlife foundations by donating to organizations that you trust. For more information on individual organizations, click here.
Until next week, remember to appreciate your life, give to those in need, and keep exploring your world.