Ecological Effects of Major Storms on Coastal Watersheds and Coastal Waters: Hurricane Bob on Cape Cod

I. Valiela, P. Peckol, C. D'Avanzo, J. Kremer, D. Hersh, K. Foreman, K. Lajtha, B. Seely, W. R. Geyer, T. Isaji, R. Crawford


Hurricane Bob, a category 3 storm, made landfall on Cape Cod in August 1991, and its effects on watersheds and adjoining estuaries were detected in the ongoing studies being carried out as part of the Waquoit Bay Land Margin Ecosystems Research project. On land, Bob had only minor overall effects on forests; localized wind bursts did snap and break trees in small and widely scattered forest parcels. Wind stripped up to half the leaves of deciduous trees and many herbaceous plants on the watershed, and most remaining leaves were damaged by salt, so that by the end of Aug, Cape Cod forests were defoliated. Damaged growing tips of exposed trees were evident for several growing seasons. The salt exposure was followed by a burst of growth and bloom in some plants during Sep-Oct. Forest invertebrates were disturbed by the storm. Nests of hornets and wasps, for example, were apparently destroyed and the survivors became a serious pest problem: hospital records show a ten-fold increase in cases of wasp stings just after Bob. Populations of these insects did not return to earlier abundance for several years. Birds and mammals did not appear to have suffered much damage. Leaching of salt to soils released previously-adsorbed soil ammonium. Such loss of critical nitrogen may be in part responsible for the characteristically dwarfed near-shore coastal forests, as well as adds nitrogen to groundwater that in turn transports the nitrogen to receiving waters.

On the Bay, Bob thoroughly mixed the water column, but the stratification was restored within 1-2 days after passage of the storm. Short recovery times might be characteristic of shallow bays with short (2-3 d) water residence times. Bob opened a new inlet to Waquoit Bay, which remains open. The new inlet exerts only minor effects on circulation within the Bay, but did create localized damage to dune and eelgrass habitats near the new inlet. The mixing of the water column released major amounts of nutrients that were held within the macroalgal canopy and upper sediments, into the upper layers, and prompted a short-lived (2-3 d) phytoplankton bloom. Biomass of unattached macroalgae was not affected by Bob. Respiration and nitrogen content of the dominant macroalgal species were elevated after passage of the storm, but returned to normal rates after several days. Nearly all above-sediment eelgrass biomass was removed, but returned to previous biomass during the next growing season. There was no visible damage to fringing salt marsh habitats. Damage to aquatic animals appears to have been minimal. A small decrease in water temperature and increased respiration by macroalgae led to decreased total net ecosystem production and increased net ecosystem respiration, but the decreases disappeared after 2 d.

The effects of Hurricane Bob seemed more intense and protracted on land than on aquatic ecosystems. Recovery from the various disturbances took hours to days in the aquatic system, but months to decades in terrestrial components. Rigid, larger organisms attached or rooted to substrates seem most subject to storm-related disturbances.


Waquoit Bay; Land Margin Ecosystems Research; hurricanes; storm effects; recovery from disturbance; coastal forests; estuaries

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