Impacts and recovery from multiple hurricanes in a Piedmont-Coastal Plain river system

350 210 Stroud Water Research Center

Mallin, M.A., M.H. Posey, M.R. McIver, D.C. Parsons, S.H. Ensign, and T.D. Alphin. 2002. BioScience 52(11):999–1010.

doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0999:IARFMH]2.0.CO;2


Few events in modern society are as frightening and unpredictable as a hurricane. A hurricane’s strength, its duration, and the location of its landfall are often uncertain until mere hours before it strikes land. Disruptions from hurricanes — including property loss, infrastructure damage, and human miserylast weeks or months, and the toll in lives lost can be catastrophic in less developed countries.

However, hurricanes are normal disturbances that natural ecosystems have been affected by and recovered from for millennia. One such ecosystem, the Cape Fear River system in North Carolina, has been struck repeatedly by hurricanes in recent years. The ecosystem-level effects of this recent spate of hurricanes are evident in the severe degradation of water quality, benthic community displacement and mortality, and large-scale fish kills. Since the Atlantic basin is predicted to have above average hurricane activity for the next 10 to 40 years (Goldberg et al. 2000), such environmental degradation is likely to continue.

In recent decades, the lower Cape Fear watershed has undergone extensive transformation, caused mainly by agriculture. Shifts in land use can substantially alter the effects of natural disturbances (Naiman and Turner 2000) and cause extensive alterations to ecosystems distant from those where the land use changes occurred (Dale et al. 2000). Our objectives in this article are to describe the effects of hurricanes on water quality, benthic faunal communities, and fish; discuss how human landscape changes amplify the effects of disturbances; and examine the ways in which this diverse river–estuarine system has responded to and recovered from various characteristics of hurricanes.