2017-10-01 / Community

Hurricanes drive ecosystem change

By Mica Rumbach
Research Technician, National Audubon Society


Several cypress trees that were more than 400 years old succumbed to Irma’s winds at Corkscrew Swamp. 
Contributed Several cypress trees that were more than 400 years old succumbed to Irma’s winds at Corkscrew Swamp. Contributed Hurricane Irma was an unprecedented storm that devastated our communities and will continue to impact the lives of Southwest Floridians for years to come. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary family stands firmly with our community as we all work to recover and rebuild from this storm.

Many people have asked, however, about Irma’s impact on natural areas within Corkscrew and throughout the western Everglades. In addition to the human toll, our ecosystems and wildlife sustained significant impacts from the winds and subsequent flooding from this storm. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s iconic 2.25-mile boardwalk sustained significant damage. Clean-up and rebuilding have begun.

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is an inland freshwater wetland ecosystem containing a mosaic of habitats including pine flatwoods, wet prairies, marshes and cypress swamps. Although hurricanes of Irma’s magnitude are not frequent occurrences, they are natural weather events in Florida and play a part in creating and shaping our wetlands.

As we’ve seen, category 3 hurricane winds are capable of snapping and uprooting trees. When trees are removed like this it clears patches for a new understory and canopy growth. Fallen trees return nutrients to the soil, serve as nurseries for plants, and provide habitat for wildlife.

While hurricanes are dangerous to human populations, our ecosystems are evolved to handle and depend on these weather disturbances. However, we mourn the loss of several of our old-growth bald cypress. These majestic landmarks were more than 400 years old.

Unfortunately, hurricanes also exacerbate the spread of nonnative species. Non-native plants thrive in disturbed areas, out-competing native plant species. High wind speeds of hurricanes easily can spread non-native plant seeds, depositing them in habitats where they establish and spread.

Hurricane disturbance also can cause the escape of non-native animal species. Hurricane Andrew’s devastation has been linked to the introduction of dozens of non-native animals from monkeys to carnivorous lizards and constrictors.

While post-Irma the sanctuary may never look exactly like we remember it, our ecosystem is dynamic and the disturbance experienced is a natural driver of ecosystem change.

Perhaps most important, the impacts we’ve seen and experienced underscore the continued need for inland wetland conservation in our region. Inland wetlands play a critical role in water storage and are the natural buffer for the flood waters we saw rise following the storm.

As we move forward, wise conservation practices will help protect our growing human population while providing habitat for the native plants and animals that drew many of us to this amazing region we’ve come to call home.

Corkscrew Sanctuary is currently closed for repairs made necessary by Hurricane Irma. Check website for updates: corkscrew.audubon.org.

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