“I would say that hurricanes are not inherently bad for coastal habitats," Smith said. "They’re bad for people trying to live on top of or right next to coastal habitats.”
According to Smith, most people only consider the obvious effects of a tropical storm, such as the powerful storm surges in which tidewaters rise and flood inhabited areas and the property damage that might ensue. But storms can have deep-seated effects on climate change, aquatic habitats and human health as well.
Atmospheric warming has been a factor in the decades-long trend regarding intensification of tropical storms, said Hans Paerl, a distinguished professor of marine and environmental sciences.
He said in instances when storms cause flooding, an abundance of organic matter is washed over impervious surfaces, like parking lots and into wetlands and other aquatic habitats. This increase in decomposition of organic matter leads to a rise in levels of atmospheric CO2, effectively canceling out the CO2 removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, Paerl said.
“I’m not a meteorologist, but I do know that if you put more CO2 back up in the air, it could lead to warming of the atmosphere. Oceanographers know that’s certainly linked to intensification of these storms. Global climate has feedback loops, and this is one of them,” said Paerl.
Rachel Noble, a distinguished marine sciences professor, said hurricane-induced flooding can also change the bacterial profile of aquatic habitats more familiar to the average North Carolinian, such as beaches and inlets frequented by swimmers. According to Noble, when combined with one or more septic systems in disrepair, flooding can carry bacteria into these areas, making it unsafe for individuals to swim or consume shellfish that inhabit the area.
“Everybody knows that floodwaters are dangerous to drive through, but I don’t think a lot of people understand that they can also be contaminated," said Noble. "Being exposed to flood waters can be more dangerous than people think.”
Noble followed up saying that water quality in areas of N.C. frequented by swimmers and tourists is typically excellent and that contamination in the wake of smaller tropical storms is usually short-lived.
According to both Paerl and Noble, There are several ways individuals and communities can reduce the cost and property damage caused by storms. Decreasing atmospheric CO2, minimizing impervious surfaces in urban planning and continually maintaining septic systems are all small steps in the right direction.