• Birds and marine life have ways of coping with hurricanes

    By: CHLOE JOHNSON, The Post and Courier

    Updated:
    CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - When a hurricane approaches, emergency managers jump into action, working on how to protect humans and their property.

    But storms have effects on other life, too, in the ocean and in the air.

    Birds have a variety of strategies for an oncoming storm, said Felicia Sanders, a bird biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

    Some birds find a safe place to perch and wait out the storm.

    The brown pelican, a coastal species, looks for spots away from the wind and the waves, said Brad Wilkinson, a Clemson University doctoral candidate who has GPS trackers in 54 of the birds in the Charleston area. One was perched under one of the Ashley River bridges leading from West Ashley into Charleston during a storm in 2017.

    The reality is it can be hard for scientists to observe animals during a storm, but Wilkinson's project, over 2017 and 2018, happened to coincide with Tropical Storms Irma and Michael, as well as Hurricane Florence.

    "You can't plan for a hurricane (to happen), obviously," Wilkinson said.

    But, Sanders added, migratory birds crossing vast distances may not have that option if they find themselves caught in a cyclone. A few have been observed using a storm to their benefit. Several of the roughly pigeon-sized whimbrel, fitted with tracking devices, have been watched by scientists as they enter storms, sometimes using the velocity of the winds to their advantage.

    The cyclones don't just bring lashing winds and hard rains - all that energy reaches under the surface of the ocean, too, roiling the water as far down as 90 meters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    That action mixes the warm water that usually sits in a layer 10 to 30 meters deep and the much colder water below, said Jack DiTullio, an oceanographer at the College of Charleston.

    The results of this churning are mixed. In some cases, corals, which can become bleached and effectively dead in too-hot water, might get a respite as cold water is displaced, DiTullio said. Violently moving water under hurricanes can also break corals apart. That's bad for delicate species, but in other cases, allows corals to move to new locations and start growing again.

    Among larger fish, the basic understanding is that many of them simply swim away - often to deeper, undisturbed waters, DiTullio said.

    While an image of a shark swimming down a residential street is one of the internet's most prevalent hoaxes during a storm, some larger marine life do occasionally end up beached, like a deep-sea eel on the Texas Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

    But a plethora of new technologies, including unmanned submersible machines, will help expand researchers' future understanding of what happens under the water in a storm.

    "All these types of robotic samplings are going to change the way we understand how hurricanes affect the physical oceanography," DiTullio said.

    ___

    Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

    Next Up: