Category Archives: Hurricanes & Storms

The Love Lives of Horseshoe Crabs, Not Cannibals

Amidst the studies on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on coastal communities—which affected the lives of people, most notably—some recent studies have examined the impacts on the lives of a strange ancient creature: horseshoe crabs. Distant relatives of scorpions and spiders, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, or crustaceans. They’ve been around for over 1 billion years and lived alongside dinosaurs. See “The Life and Times of the Earliest Horseshoe Crabs,” (Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum). Unlike a scorpion, crab or spider, horseshoe crabs don’t bite, sting or pinch. And unlike cannibalistic crustaceans, adult horseshoe crabs do not congregate (except to spawn seasonally), which is possibly a way to avoid large crabs attacking smaller horseshoe crabs—thus, avoiding cannibalistic behavior as a species. (Sekiguchi, Shuster, Jr., 1999) Their anatomy is interesting, as illustrated below.

Each spring, horseshoe crabs spawn along creek-mouth beaches and shoals. They like sandy beaches. Naturally, these coastal areas, rich in wetlands, peat bogs and saltwater marsh, were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. What’s more, sea level rise has eroded certain coastal beaches where horseshoe crabs used to spawn, decreasing the habitat suitable for spawning. See Sea Level Rise and the Significance of Marginal Beaches for Horseshoe Crab Spawning (Botton and Loveland, 2011).

In the Delaware Bay, for example, the American Littoral Society, along with the Wetlands Institute, the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection and New Jersey Audubon, have assessed the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on horseshoe crab populations in the Bay. Watch this video of horseshoe crab spawning in Delaware. Read Hurricane Sandy Race To Restore Horseshoe Crab Spawning Grounds (March 2013). Videos depict horseshoe crabs spawning, swimming upside down and righting themselves.

In a joint report by the Wetlands Institute, NJ Audubon Society and NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife (“Damage from Superstorm Sandy to Horseshoe Crab Breeding and Shorebird Stopover Habitat on Delaware Bay,” December 2012), wetlands did well overall, despite some “wash over” during storm surges of Hurricane Sandy, according to Lenore Tedesco, Ph.D. Director of Research at the Wetlands Institute. Yet a major finding was a 70% decrease in suitable breeding habitat for horseshoe crabs. In addition, there was about the same amount of increase in unsuitable habitat for horseshoe crab spawning. Specifically, the scientists classified the types of habitat into five categories:

  1. Optimal: undisturbed sand beach;
  2. Suitable: sand beach with only small areas of peat and/or backed by development
  3. Less Suitable: exposed peat in lower/middle intertidal zone;
    sand present in upper intertidal;
  4. Avoided habitat:  exposed peat or active salt marsh fringing the shoreline;
    no sand present
  5. Disturbed due to beach fill, riprap or bulkheading.
    (Niles, Tedesco, Sellers, et. al. 2012)

In areas where the habitat is less suitable, with exposed peat, there is less sand for the horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs. The full report includes recommendations for habitat restoration. For more information about post-Sandy restoration recommendations, visit the Wetlands Institute’s website here.

Many years ago, I learned that horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) lay at the heart of some medical advances in immunology research. Apparently, horseshoe crab blood and immunology can serve scientists with a model to develop treatments for patients with HIV, AIDS or other immune deficiency disorders. Its “blue blood” contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, which allows medical researchers to detect bacterial toxins. In ecological projects, the spawning and genetic diversity of horseshoe crabs is the focus, or the relationship between horseshoe crabs and fisheries. For an overview of various research projects on horseshoe crabs happening in 18 states and two countries, see these project summaries. There’s some fascinating research underway.

The Wetland Institute has a number of publications on its website related to horseshoe crab research and conservation. There’s also an “Adopt a Horseshoe Crab” program and horseshoe crab census data available from 1999-2009. In May, the Institute holds festival activities, including teaching tank/aquarium talks on saltmarsh ecology, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. For more information about the Horseshoe Crab Festival in May,click here.

More videos:

See horseshoe crab counting (Washington Post video, June 2012)
NATURE program on horseshoe crabs (PBS, 2008)
Horseshoe crab documentary (Nick Baker, Science Channel)

For more on horseshoe crab biology and ecology, see this National Park Service webpage and materials developed by the Mid-Atlantic Sea Grant and NOAA joint programs on horseshoe crab research. Finally, check outhttp://horseshoecrab.org/ which houses an online warehouse of information on the biology, conservation and research of horseshoe crabs.

Advertisements

Surging Seas and Hybrid Storms

NASA officials nicknamed Hurricane Sandy “Bride of Frankenstorm.” Strange behavior patterns—hitting the northeast as a mix of nor’easter blizzard and hurricane conditions created a powerful hybrid storm that affected many communities. In Maine, we felt the storm’s most severe impacts the night of the full moon on October 29th. Footage of storm surge on the news looked like the forceful wave action in “Thunder Hole” at Acadia National Park. Throughout New England, New York and New Jersey, many people were still without power when the nor’easter hit this week. Hurricane Sandy’s unusual hybrid classification and other factors set a precedent. Coupled with the tides of the full moon, storm surge was more intense, causing more flooding to occur. Are we likely to see and experience powerful hybrid storms like this in the future? What tools are available to predict storm surge?

Forecasters called Hurricane Sandy a “perfect storm.” View photos of the storm as seen from space. Last winter Strange Wetlands reported on the Red Cross/Red Crescent’sinvolvement in the IPCC report on the link between extreme weather disasters and climate change. This week Climate Central’s Surging Seas tool demonstrated how effects of climate change, including sea level rise and storm surge, made Hurricane Sandy worsethan it might have been otherwise.

Federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NASA have been measuring storm surge for many decades, since the 1960s (see above)—long before most people started talking about sea level rise. According to a NASA presentation on An Analysis of Storm Surge Attenuation using USGS, FEMA and NASA data, there is historical data to support the claim that wetlands significantly reduce storm surge. Wetland scientists in the 1960s asserted that 2.7 miles of wetlands reduced storm surge by 1 foot. More recent data from Hurricane Rita was used to assess the storm impacts to wetlands (such as causing wetland loss) as well as wetlands’ role in lessening the effects of storm surge. Therefore wetland losses along the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Louisiana, for instance, and along other areas of coastline on the eastern seaboard, intensified the amount of storm surge during recent hurricanes, such as Hurricane Irene and Sandy. (Fitzpatrick, et. al. 2008) Also see Storm Surge Reduction by Wetlands.

While SLAMM—Sea Level Affecting Marsh Model—may be familiar to you, a tool used in analyzing sea level rise, especially with respect to wetlands, have you heard of SLOSH? Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes, (SLOSH) is a tool used to analyze storm surgeHurricane Sandy’s storm surge was mapped before it made landfall. The SLOSH model was applied to Hurricane Sandy prior to Oct. 29th and it analyzed surges of various levels (2 feet, 3 feet, 4 feet, etc.) At most locations, meteorologists predicted unprecedented levels of surgeusing this tool and other analyses. Tools like SLOSH are only as good as the available data. Future budget cuts threaten data collection tools, such as ocean bouysOther storm surge analysis tools were used to predict Sandy’s surge levels and ultimately, citizens were evacuated in areas where the path of the storm surge was predicted on the maps using those models.

Some useful fact sheets and further reading on the importance of wetlands in preventing storm surge are linked below:

Storm surge & wetlands in Louisiana (NWF fact sheet)
Mitigating Storm Surge with Vegetation & Wetlands (Army Corps of Engineers, 2007)
Analysis of Storm Surge Attenuation & Wetlands (NASA) (2008)
The potential of wetlands in reducing storm surge (Ocean Engineering, 2010)
Hurricane Sandy Geospatial Resources (NOAA Digital Coast, 2012)

2012 the Year of the Black Water Dragon

The Chinese year of the Black Water Dragon—2012, began January 23rd, and ends on February 9, 2013. The last time it was a Black Water Dragon year was 60 years ago in 1952. Black Water Dragon years are meant to “cool things down.” The Dragon is the fifth symbol in the Chinese zodiac.

Before you roll your eyes about all of this astrology business, keep in mind the example of the year President Obama was elected…the year of the Earth Ox, or water buffalo. Chinese astrologers predicted that the elected president would be one who was born during an Ox year (he was born the year of the Metal Ox), and President Obama was also elected during an Ox year. Astrologers claim that the Ox succeeds in a slow-and-steady process.

In addition to the Chinese zodiac animal, there is also an element (water, fire, earth, metal, wood) attached to each zodiac animal year, as well as a color, attributing more specific characteristics to that year. Historically, there were 9 types of Chinese dragons, which were regarded as demi-gods because they were believed to be a source of rain. This also meant that dragons were the cause of floods. Dragons play an important role in Chinese mythology. For instance, one of their river deities, Pi-hsi, is part tortoise, part dragon, and its ruling element is water. Another mythological dragon was born out of aquatic weeds. Different colored dragons foretold different weather patterns, for example, a black dragon predicted storms. The color black, when applied to a dragon year, gives it a mysterious, unpredictable quality. As applied to water, black water years signify storms, flooding and other “dark water” – water heavily loaded with sediment can be dark.

What about other water dragons?  Water dragons appear in mythology and folklore all over the world. For example, in the Seneca Nation in the U.S. and in Canada, there is a story about a giant serpent-like dragon with antlers or the horns of a buffalo. He’s a formidable dragon, however, he’s been known to rescue women in some of the stories. The piasa bird is a North American dragon associated with modern folklore along the Mississippi River. This dragon was a man-eater, which arose out of stories in the 1830s.  Another water dragon shows up in Pueblo stories across Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona—a Water Serpent tied to water disasters and fertility.

Among the predictions for 2012, Chinese astrologers foresee that it will be a year of peace and prosperity…and not the end of the world. Because dragons are associated with water flow, floods and rain, water dragon years are also called “Water Dam” years, as connected with the building and maintenance of dams and flood control. At the very least, Black Water Dragon years are never dry for the entire year; wetlands may stay wet during dry seasons, according to the myth. In particular, a water-related disaster is predicted for late 2012. Some predictions imply that dams will need to be checked carefully, otherwise they may fail, and land will be either hydrated or flooded.  Overall 2012 looks like a year of great creativity and stormy weather, with a strong water influence, and possible flooding events (such as those caused by hurricanes). Whenever someone says, “expect the unexpected,” or forecasts stormy weather and possible flooding, it is prudent to sharpen our tools and be ready for anything. For more information on watersheds, floodplains and floods, check out ASWM’s watershed resources on the Mississippi River flood, the Natural Floodplains Functions Alliance and natural hazards. And may it indeed be a peaceful year.

Climate Change Takes a Toll on the American Red Cross with Extreme Weather-Related Disasters

In November 2011, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that confirmed a link between extreme weather-related disasters like hurricanes, floods, tsunamis and other storms, to climate change. This was the first time that the IPCC emphasized this link in an official report based on the consensus of over 200 scientists. One of the lead authors of the report is also a director at theRed Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.  The Red Cross confirmed that the findings of the IPCC reflect what the Red Cross has observed:

‘The Red Cross warned that disaster agencies were already dealing with the effects of climate change in vulnerable countries across the world. “The findings of this report certainly tally with what the Red Cross Movement is seeing, which is a rise in the number of weather-related emergencies around the world,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red  Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre and coordinating lead author of the IPCC report. “We are  committed to responding to disasters whenever and wherever they happen, but we have to  recognize that if the number of disasters continues to increase, the current model we have for responding to them is simply impossible to sustain.”’ – from The Guardian, Nov. 17, 2011http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/17/ipcc-climate-change-extreme-weather

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre published a related report for policy-makers in light of this new information about extreme weather-related disasters and preparing for climate change. For the Summary for Policy Makers of the new Special Report on Extremes (Nov. 2011), visit: http://www.climatecentre.org/site/news/329/summary-for-policy-makers-of-the-new-special-report-on-extremes-srex

For Strange Wetlands, I sought the first-hand perspective of Allen Crabtree, a volunteer for the Public Affairs division of the American Red Cross. Mr. Crabtree has volunteered with the Red Cross since Katrina. He has identified many human interest stories and interviewed those affected by floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme-weather disasters. In the past year, the Red Cross deployed Mr. Crabtree to cover the stories of Hurricane Irene and related flooding events in Vermont and the Mississippi River floods, and the tornadoes in South Carolina.

Mr. Crabtree arrives on the scene immediately after a hurricane, tornado, flood or forest fire has hit. Often he is deployed “pre-landfall,” before a hurricane has come ashore. It’s his job to get the word out to people –let them know where the Red Cross shelters and other services are located, to help prepare people for a disaster and to contact the media. He’s been known to set his laptop up and report via Skype with a hurricane raging around him. The Red Cross makes use of social media, too, to spread the news—over Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. However, social media can be a way for rumors to spread, for example, when the Mississippi River floods occurred, there was a false rumor posted on Twitter about the Red Cross offering a particular service; but these social media outlets are closely monitored, and rumors are quickly squashed.

Extreme weather-related disasters are expensive and the Red Cross uses footage of the storms, the damage and the people in shelters, to raise funds for their efforts. But Mr. Crabtree’s first love—writing stories—is what drives him to reach out to people. Thinking back on the Mississippi River floods, Mr. Crabtree said, “The sad thing about floods is that they are a slow-moving disaster. When do you evacuate? Afterwards, it makes a slow retreat as the water levels return to normal.” Unlike a tornado with its fast path of destruction, a flood, or even a hurricane, can continue to damage communities and wreak havoc long after the onset of the storm. Mr. Crabtree has written about some of the “success stories” among the Red Cross shelters during the Mississippi River floods and other storms this year, stories, he says, about “people picking themselves up in the face of a lot of impediments. They are a shining example of the resilience of people.” Read Allen Crabtree’s stories here on the Red Cross website via the links below the photo.

Red Cross Reaches Out to Aid Vermont Flood Family (Vermont flood, September 2011)

Red Cross Shelters Residents of Transvale Acres in Flooded Conway, NH (2011)

“What do I do after the flood?” (North Dakota, 2011)

Red Cross is here for the Long Haul(Mississippi River floods, 2011)

Disaster Can Change Someone’s Life in Seconds (North Carolina tornado, 2011)

Video, News Channel 8: Interview with Allen Crabtree on the Joplin tornado (June 2011)

Strong Waters, Stronger Friendships(Missouri floods, 2008)