Director's Letter

Science to Face the Disasters


The second half of 2017 has not been easy. Many watched in shock as hurricane after hurricane ripped through the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. Before hurricane season died out, we also witnessed violent earthquakes in Mexico and devastating wildfires in California.

It’s a lot to process. How do we make sense of it all?

As ecologists, we focus on environmental impacts of disasters, the recovery process, and trends in frequency and severity. These often take months or years, long after the media and emergency relief crews depart, but they still have power to reshape our world.

Six years ago, Japan was reeling from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. This past June, I visited some of the small coastal towns that are rebuilding and attempting to harden their shorelines against future tsunamis. At SERC, we can advise communities on recovery methods that last, but we’re also discovering unexpected impacts. As Japan has been healing itself, hundreds of marine species spent years rafting across the Pacific on tsunami debris. Many thought coastal species couldn’t survive such a journey, until biologists from SERC, Williams College and other organizations found nearly 300 tsunami-borne species washed up alive on beaches of North America’s West Coast.

Left to right: Hurricane Floyd at SERC weir in 1999 (SERC); flooding from Hurricane Isabel at SERC's Global Change Research Wetland (Gary Peresta/SERC); Nun's Fire in Oakland, Calif., in October 2017 (Lance Cheung/USDA)

We remember disasters closer to home as well. Early in SERC’s history, in 1972, Hurricane and Tropical Storm Agnes dumped so much rain into the Chesapeake that nearly the entire Bay became freshwater. Many oysters, clams and seagrasses were overwhelmed by sediment and have yet to recover. Similarly, downpours in California this winter after years of drought made San Francisco Bay nearly fresh. Our scientists there are measuring ecological responses to that sudden change. In 2003 Hurricane and Tropical Storm Isabel produced record-breaking storm surges–over 8 feet in some places–flooding homes and businesses on both eastern and western shores of the Chesapeake. The SERC dock went underwater, and some SERC employees lost cars. Then this October, while I visited SERC’s lab in Tiburon, Calif., on San Francisco Bay, another type of disaster struck: intense fires fueled by growth of grasslands from last winter’s rains. The fires burned thousands of homes to the ground, filled the air with smoke and closed the “SERC West” lab.

SERC ecologist Candy Feller studies how Florida mangroves withstand hurricanes. (Anne Chamberlain)

Yet hopeful signs can come from unexpected places. During three separate years, including this one, SERC scientist Candy Feller has watched hurricanes blow through her Florida mangrove experiments. But from the ruins, she tracks how mangrove trees recover and has made a surprising discovery: “Dwarf mangroves” barely five feet tall proved remarkably resilient—and they may help protect Florida from future hurricanes. Meanwhile, storms helped spread mangrove propagules farther north, all the way to Georgia. 

If 2017 has made anything clear, it is that climate change is in our backyards. As sea level rises, cities like Annapolis, Crisfield, Alexandria and Norfolk are flooding many times a year. In the past 50 years carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen 20 percent, Arctic ice is now melting at a rate of 13 percent per decade, and since 2000 we have seen the hottest years and decade on record. All this is accelerating the pattern of more frequent, more intense weather—storms in some places and severe droughts in others.

Science has the power to decode disasters, and show us how to fight and recover from them. We cannot stop every extreme event. But ecosystems like mangroves and wetlands can lessen the damage. We can make them less frequent and destructive by taking steps to rein in climate change. What kind of year will 2018 be? I believe it can be the year we rise more resilient, armed with the knowledge to fortify our communities and confront disasters with strength.

-Tuck Hines, director