Hurricane Grants Track the Storm This Time

The National Science Foundation is handing out more than $5 million for 59 hurricane research projects.

By Zach Mortice 

Texas National Guard and Texas Task Force responders conduct aerial search and rescue in Rockport, Holiday Beach, and the Port Aransas area. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, photo by the Texas National Guard.

An unprecedented storm that dumped more than 50 inches of rain onto Texas over just a few days, Harvey was the kind of hurricane that worsening climate change promises to bring back for a sequel. And if and when that happens, the next round of  recovery and resilience calculus might best begin with the results of the National Science Foundation’s series of research grants dedicated to studying the storm’s effects.

Last month, the agency handed out just over $5 million across 59 research projects prompted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, including several that deal with the ecological and landscape fallout of catastrophic storms. Each promises to generate valuable information about flora and fauna left reeling from extreme weather events. But these studies (four of which are detailed here) are even more vital as mile markers down the path toward a future besieged by climate change—either as guidance on forestalling it or living better within its confines.

Anna Armitage of Texas A&M Galveston is studying how the transition from salt marsh wetlands to mangroves might change how hurricanes affect the coast. In Texas, low, marshy wetlands are common, whereas dense mangroves are rare. That balance is shifting, however, as climate change heats up these ecosystems. As mangroves expand their footprint, Armitage (and researchers at Florida International University and the University of Houston) wonders if they might offer coastal ecosystems and human settlement more protection from hurricane winds and rain—at a cost of biodiversity. “It probably doesn’t provide the same value for birds, fish, and shrimp,” she says.

Climate Change Big Picture: If mangroves do offer more protection for coastal ecosystems in a climate of increasingly severe storms, then Armitage says the next question is, “Should we be planting them in restoration sites?” These kinds of “living shorelines,” she says, could be “more resilient, longer-lasting, and nicer looking protection for our communities” than concrete barriers.

Grant amount: $122,935

Paul Montagna of Texas A&M Corpus Christi is studying the inundation of fresh water (via rainfall) into saltwater ecosystems that Hurricane Harvey caused. From initial measurements after the rain, he’s observed increased amounts of dissolved organic matter in these waterways, and has seen salinity and oxygen levels dropping to zero, with oxygen levels remaining low and killing off flora that’s grounded in place. He suspects these levels might stay low for a year. But they could also set the stage for a new, accelerated cycle of growth. “Sometimes a forest fire can have a benefit, in that it clears out all the dead wood,” Montagna says. “And we’re wondering if a similar thing might happen in the bays as well, and we might actually see a bloom of productivity in the spring this year. It might come back even stronger.”

Climate Change Big Picture: If climate change concentrates hurricane-spawned torrential rainfall more and more, ecologists will need to understand how these inundations will reshape the land. “How much fresh water does the coastal zone need to maintain productivity?” Montagna asks. “Will a big slug of water actually help it in the long run?”

Grant amount: $182,790

Firat Testik of the University of Texas at San Antonio is studying the dispersal and migration of sand and sediment on six coastal beaches in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Inclusive of both barrier island and mainland beaches, Testik’s research will examine sand grain sizes, erosion levels, and beach topography, with core samples taken from one foot beneath the surface. He’s curious to see how quickly this sediment will return and recover. “Dunes are the first line of defense” against hurricanes, Testik says. “Their management is very important.”

Climate Change Big Picture: “Our research will lead to new knowledge that can be used to restore and manage beaches and dunes in a better way, so we can have resilient coastal communities,” Testik says.

Grant amount: $38,662

Christopher Patrick of Texas A&M Corpus Christi is studying the effects of Hurricane Harvey on freshwater streams in Texas’s coastal plains. With co-principal investigators Derek Hogan and Brandi Reese, Patrick will examine how nine streams spread across a dry-to-wet, west-to-east, 190-mile gradient have responded to the storm. Wind damage in wetter, more intensely forested areas knocks heaps of organic matter into these streams. “All of that organic matter, all that wood and leaves, is all going into these systems, so the systems that have more riparian vegetation are getting a lot more organic material,” says Patrick. “We think that the systems on the wetter side that have a lot of riparian vegetation are going to show a big response. Production’s actually going to increase.” In addition to adding more nutrients to aquatic ecosystems, these logs and branches create eddies, ripples, and pools, “and that complexity creates more habitats for different kinds of fish and invertebrates,” Patrick says. They’ll be looking at how these changes affect microbial life, invertebrates, and fish, and measuring the overall productivity of the environment—its “total metabolic activity,” Hogan says. By documenting this dynamic, they expect their results to prove the value of letting these kinds of riparian buffer zones grow and vegetate.

Climate Change Big Picture: As Texas’s climate gets hotter and dryer, the arid zones Patrick is studying will expand. Documenting them after a hurricane will offer a window into the future of how a more arid coast handles the next catastrophic storm.

Grant amount: $199,952

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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