Nutrient Cycles

As storms swirl across the globe and churn the seas, they mix nutrients in coastal waters. On land, overwash adds mineral elements to sandy systems. The high winds and saltwater inundation associated with major hurricanes serve as a catalyst that can push coastal ecosystems into new cycles of development (Jackson 2006). According to Fink (1989), who reported on the January 1988 storm that struck the California coast, “seawater inundation is a significant input to the mineral budget, which may produce a fertilizer effect.” In addition, wrack deposited within dune habitat can add scarce organic matter to the sand substrate. Increased amounts of debris can also improve nesting sites, providing protection from predators, and create new habitat (Magorien 2004).

Generally, the nutrients contained in the needles and leaves of plants are translocated prior to normal “litterfall,” but storm-induced litterfall (of “live” needles and leaves) can contain up to five times more nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium than average litter (Michener et al. 1997). For example, nitrogen inputs after Hurricane Hugo (1989) were approximately double those associated with average annual litterfall in coastal forests of South Carolina (Blood et al. 1991). During Hurricane Katrina (2005), live foliage contained in litter represented an immense pulse of organic matter to the soil in coastal forests. Through increased nutrient turnover and availability, hurricanes ultimately stimulate net primary production, as illustrated by the rapid appearance of new leaves, seedlings, and stump sprouting following a hurricane (Michener et al. 1997).

Last updated: July 16, 2019