Mangroves and other coastal habitats serve as a first line of defense during rough weather events, helping to slow storm surge, disperse wave energy, and reduce shoreline erosion on beaches and riverbanks. Coastal habitats, mangroves especially, also help protect homes and businesses from floating and windborne storm-created debris, contributing to reduced storm severity on developed areas.Thanks to storm preparation by reserve staff, several of the reserve’s smaller buildings, such as the pole barn on Shell Island Road and the shed at our Ten Thousand Islands field station, received only minor wind and surge damage. Landscaping across the area was also impacted, especially on the grounds of the Environmental Learning Center, but the majority of Florida’s native plants and trees will resprout or otherwise heal in time. Additionally, the center is back up and running for visitors to enjoy, thanks to the many dedicated staff and volunteers who assisted in post-storm cleanup and debris removal to help get the reserve reopened as quickly and as safely as possible. Scientists from Rookery Bay Research Reserve and elsewhere are taking advantage of this change event to learn how coastal habitats respond and react to hurricane impacts. They conducted a boat-based survey of coastal areas during the weeks following the storm, and despite some visible damage to homes and docks, they saw dolphins playing in their wake, a school of tarpon rolling in the bay and many species of birds feeding. Rivers and backwater bays still look murky due to increased flows of fresh water containing contains excess tannins from downed trees and leaves as well as sediments that were stirred up by winds and currents however, nearshore coastal waters are clear. One of the most obvious results of the heavy winds and surf was the toppling of more Australian pines along Hurricane Pass adjacent to Keewaydin Island. According to reserve director Keith Laakkonen, these exotic trees tip over easily, don’t break down very readily and can significantly impact sea turtles’ access to nesting areas.
Unfortunately, many sea turtle nests were inundated by salt water or were washed away due to the storm. Reserve staff are continuing to work with partners to get a comprehensive understanding of Irma’s impact on sea turtles nesting in the area.
The dynamic nature of coastal systems is that they absorb storms and adjust. These natural areas did their job of buffering our mainland from the brunt of the storm. What we can all take away from this event is an appreciation of the value of keeping barrier islands like Keewaydin and Cape Romano in a natural state. Without natural coastal systems to serve as the front line to buffer us from the brunt of catastrophic storms, coastal communities in hurricane-prone regions like Southwest Florida stand to lose a whole lot more.
Learn more about the coastal environment by visiting Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center or www.rookerybay.org.
Renee Wilson is Communications Coordinator at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. She has been a Florida resident since 1986, and joined the staff at the Reserve in 2000.