Three sequential hurricanes, Dennis, Floyd, and Irene, affected coastal North Carolina in September and October 1999. These hurricanes inundated the region with up to 1 m of rainfall, causing 50- to 500-year flooding in the watershed of the Pamlico Sound, the largest lagoonal estuary in the United States and a key West Atlantic fisheries nursery. We investigated the ecosystem-level impacts on and responses of the Sound to the floodwater discharge. Floodwaters displaced three-fourths of the volume of the Sound, depressed salinity by a similar amount, and delivered at least half of the typical annual nitrogen load to this nitrogen-sensitive ecosystem. Organic carbon concentrations in floodwaters entering Pamlico Sound via a major tributary (the Neuse River Estuary) were at least 2-fold higher than concentrations under prefloodwater conditions. A cascading set of physical, chemical, and ecological impacts followed, including strong vertical stratification, bottom water hypoxia, a sustained increase in algal biomass, displacement of many marine organisms, and a rise in fish disease. Because of the Sound's long residence time (???1 year), we hypothesize that the effects of the short-term nutrient enrichment could prove to be multiannual. A predicted increase in the frequency of hurricane activity over the next few decades may cause longer-term biogeochemical and trophic changes in this and other estuarine and coastal habitats.
Additional Publication Details
Ecosystem impacts of three sequential hurricanes (Dennis, Floyd, and Irene) on the United States' largest lagoonal estuary, Pamlico Sound, NC
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America