Hurricanes Change the Landscape Below the Ocean Too!

by Robert Gardiner

Paper Title: Effects of hurricanes on the stability of reef-associated landscapes

Authors: R Rioja-Nieto1*, X Chiappa-Carrara1, C Sheppard2

First Author Affiliations: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Yucatan, Mexico

Journal: Ciencias Marinas (2012), 38(1A): 47–55


This paper talks about the impacts that hurricanes and development can have on the plants and organisms that live in shallow landscapes under the sea.


Hurricanes have the power to completely transform the shallow marine environment in the few short days it takes for it to move over an area.  The high winds and torrential downpours plus local water depth and the strength of an organism’s attachment to the seafloor all contribute to how much damage the hurricane will ultimately cause.  These storm conditions have different effects on the organisms which live on the seafloor.  For example, seagrass meadows will suffer from things like defoliation, exposure of its root systems, burial, or death caused by a decrease in water quality.  Small coral colonies are also negatively affected by either being smothered by sand coverage or in some cases having their branches broken off by strong waves.  After the damage is done, the question then becomes whether or not the community can recover.  In the Caribbean, macroalgae, the technical term for seaweed, can take anywhere between three weeks to eight months to recover from a storm. Seagrass can take up to a year, and coral reefs may not recover at all.  After the coral dies, the reef can switch over to what is called an “alternate state”, which is when the reefs are mostly covered by various types of seaweed.  This dominance of seaweed prohibits the corals from returning and is not good for the local ecosystem.

The current rate for a hurricane in the Mexican Caribbean varies greatly from one every seven and a half years to one every 18.5 years.  In the Atlantic, the number of hurricanes each year has increased since 1995 and is expected to increase into the future.  In 2005, Cozumel was hit with two major hurricanes, Emily and Wilma, within just three months of each other.  Because of the different recovery rates of marine organisms we just discussed, having two major hurricanes within a short amount of time can be ecologically devastating. This study focused on the changes of seafloor organisms after Hurricane Emily, a Category 4 hurricane.  

During September through November 2004 (a year before Emily), the authors of the paper created a Geographic Information System (GIS) map of the island with areas delineating various shallow marine environments.  These areas, or “polygons” as they are called, were then investigated by divers to obtain estimates on the percent of cover of the nine seafloor types to be studied (Fig 1). Two months after Hurricane Emily, 71 of the sites were re-visited before Hurricane Wilma.  The data they were most interested in was the difference in seafloor percent coverage before the storm versus after.  While all of the seafloor types they were monitoring differed after the hurricane, only four could be considered “statistically significant”: Sand (increased by 22%), Sand Over Rock (increased by 109%), Seagrass (decreased by 56%), and hard coral coverage (decreased by 63%).

Average Percent Coverage of evaluated locations after Hurricane Emily impacted Cozumel, Mexico

The increase of “Sand” and “Sand Over Rock” calls attention to the risk of artificial beaches. Developers frequently create artificial beaches for tourists which offer more sand than nature had intended. This excess sand is suspended and transported to nearby coral reefs during storms, smothering the coral. However, this new sand cover offers a great environment for the seaweed to establish itself on creating the potential for the “alternate state” mentioned earlier.
On the south side of the island, shallow sites were less affected by the hurricane because of highly developed coral reefs. This reiterates the fact that coral reefs are great natural barriers that help reduce severe wave action. Properly managing tourist activities that add sediment to the water column is vital to maintain healthy, natural breakwaters. Unregulated tourism activities coupled with the increase in abundance in macroalgae caused by hurricanes (relative to the other seafloor types) could be enough to cause beautiful coral reefs to turn into large, rocky areas covered by seaweed. Good management, environmental regulations, and proper coastal planning carried out by Cozumel’s officials are needed to avoid this disastrous scenario and ensure that the reefs remain healthy for a long time to come.


About Us – Climate Monday

Intro.  Climate Monday at GeoSciBites is the day devoted to the various forms of climate science.  Climate refers to the long-term average properties of weather, so Climate Monday will focus on atmospheric physics and chemistry.  Long-term weather properties don’t just depend on what happens in the atmosphere, but also how the atmosphere interacts with the oceans, soil, ice and rock of the earth.  These interactions are key to understanding climate and climate change, so they will be included in Climate Monday posts.

Topics.  Fields that will likely fall under Climate Monday:

  • Meteorology and other atmospheric fluid dynamics.
  • Atmospheric chemistry, radiation, and cloud physics
  • Climate dynamics, the study of phenomena that affect the globe
    (e.g. El Niño, changes in the jet stream, and glacial cycles)
  • Climate change projections and computer simulation of the climate

Overlaps.  As mentioned, the climate interacts with many other components of the earth system.  Examples of some of these overlaps (posts that could fit into multiple categories) are:

  • Rock Talk Tuesday: Sedimentation is one of the few true carbon sinks and is a key process in long-term climate change.  Paleoclimatology is the science of finding out about the climate by studying these and other sediments.  Erosion of the solid earth is a component of all biogeochemical cycles and affects climate by providing trace gases.
  • Wet Wednesday: The ocean is a buffer for climate change, exchanging heat, momentum, and trace chemicals with the atmosphere.  In addition, the water cycle (evaporation and precipitation) is key to understanding climate.
  • Dirty Thursday: Half of soil is actually air, and this air interacts with the atmosphere above.  Plants depend on certain nutrients in the soil that can be absorbed from the air, like ammonia.  Plants also emit nitrogen oxides and other chemicals that can heat up the lower atmosphere and contribute to the particles that make up air pollution.

Many other overlaps exist, but the above examples should give a flavor of how broad and integrative climate science is.

What it is not.  Climate Monday will not discuss purely anthropogenic factors (society, culture, economics, etc.) except to the extent that these things influence the climate system.  For example, a study linking energy demand to sulfate air pollution would not be considered for Climate Mondays, but one linking energy demand to sulfate-induced effects on clouds might be considered.  We at GeoSciBites take this approach not to discount the importance of these anthropogenic factors, but rather to allow climate science enough room to be explored.  These social factors might be included in Feature Friday pieces along with other science-related topics.

Modern climate science relies heavily on computer models.  Familiarity with the complexity, intent, strengths and weaknesses, and other features of a model is crucial to engaging with current research, but this context is often a large barrier for new students.  Our hope is to provide this context when necessary and cover papers in which important or insightful advances are made in climate modeling and to point to resources for learning about these models, but otherwise avoid dwelling on the field.

Final Comments.  Climate science is cross-disciplinary.  I encourage those who might not consider themselves “climate science” students to submit or suggest articles to Climate Mondays.  It can be a prime opportunity to put interesting work into a broader perspective (wonderful writing practice for grant proposals!).  These articles can also introduce climate scientists – who come from physics, chemistry, biology, and all of their subcategories – to your particular field and get them engaged with research they otherwise wouldn’t have learned about.  Such engagement is what we’re all about here at GeoSciBites and a core principle of the Bites programs.

Site updates from Mandy

Thanks to Noelle, we have a nice, new background image and tagline “Take a bite out of Time” (though I am trying to get it to work).

GeoSciBites Logo

I also added a few author bios to the site.

Also went through and added glossary information for soil science and links to educational sites. We are looking to expand this list in the future.

We are in the process of trying to find out how our submissions process is going to work, and finding more authors to volunteer. (Noelle may have already gotten a bite! :D).

Now, back to pretending to work on my dissertation.

Welcome to GeoSciBites!

After the resounding success of the Astrobites group, the Environmental and Geoscience Community thought that we could try to replicate these successes with Geoscibites.

Geosciences is a large field encompassing many different disciplines. These fields include climate science, oceanography, geology, soil science, hydrology, atmospheric science, volcanology, and more. However, there is a lot of awesome research to share with you, the adoring public.

We will be digesting and summarizing important new research findings and classic papers for science educators, undergraduates, new (and old) graduate students, and anyone else who is interested (Rock On Rock lovers!). We will do this in a science jargon free manner. We also will feature profiles of scientists, field characters, career tips, and any other ideas that you recommend.

The founding group of the Geobites website got together at the 2013 Communicating in Science Workshop (ComSciCon) for Graduate Students at Harvard/MIT in June 2013. It consists of six graduate student members from varying disciplines and universities. We are hoping to expand to having more contributing members, if you are interested, please email

These are four of the ComSciCon participants in the process of launching GeoSciBites

These are four of the ComSciCon participants in the process of launching GeoSciBites